Tara Hunt, Social Marketing Authority
Before Timeline and tweets, before a blog was called a blog, before anyone even knew what a web browser was, Tara Hunt was there. Often labeled a pioneer of online and social marketing, the 39-year-old Canadian has been an observer of the realm's development and a force in influencing it.
Hunt says her own evolution has been "a combination of being enamored and obsessed with the social web and being in the right place at the right time." She was able to experiment in online marketing early on at startups in Toronto and San Francisco, when numbers of followers and likes weren't crucial to anyone's bottom line. There, Hunt found that organic engagement--developing relationships with a community in a natural, hands-on way, rather than pushing a message or brand image--was the most powerful driver of customer loyalty. (She even wrote a bestselling book on the subject: 2009's The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business.)
Now, says Hunt, who currently works as digital and content director at Tuxedo Agency in Montreal, the rules have changed. Companies want customers immediately, and they want to bypass the work it takes to get them. "Brands [are] vying for attention and throwing a lot of money trying to get that attention and bending the rules of the social sphere," she says. "Social networks like Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube have built a lot of tools to help brands jump the line by paying a certain amount of money." Those tools help support the ecosystem, so they aren't necessarily bad, Hunt says, unless they prevent companies from learning how to truly engage with their customers.
"When it comes to social, small is the new big," she declares. Businesses that take the grassroots tack, "playing by the rules of engagement for building real relationships, not paid-for relationships," are the ones with staying power. Hunt cites Zappos, the darling of social marketing, whose focus on little gestures results in dedicated and satisfied customers who are happy to spread the word.
Hunt likens her industry to a pimply teenager: still making mistakes, still experiencing growing pains. Even her own recent startup, Buyosphere, has evolved, pivoting from a social retail platform offering insight into community buying patterns to a fashion-advice network. And as social marketing continues to find its footing, Hunt is happy to help guide it through adolescence.