As UGC has become a critical piece to brand strategy, it’s only natural that Bazaarvoice has begun working much closer with those who help guide some of the brands we work with: agencies. This month, we’re pleased feature Shiv Singh, one of the more recognized voices in the social media arena, who currently serves as Vice President, Social Media & Global Strategic Initiatives at Avenue A|Razorfish (AA|RF). Shiv and the rest of the team at AA|RF have done a great job in digging into some of the trends in social influence marketing, and helping clients understand how to piece it all together in a way that’s meaningful and measurable. They also have a great new site that’s all about brand transparency – you can watch them at work! We hope you enjoy the interview.

1. What percentage of your client engagements has a social media/commerce component? What do you see as the recurring themes, goals, and challenges of these engagements?

Practically every client of ours across all industries is asking us about social media in its various forms. This wasn’t the case a year ago.

We trigger some of this dialogue as we make our clients more comfortable with employing social influencers and social media to meet their marketing and business objectives, or what we call Social Influence Marketing. (Click to see how SIM ties to peer influences and customer acquisition.) But other times, a client simply realizes that the web has fundamentally changed. The realization often plays out like this: first, a sense of panic takes hold inside the enterprise, which then translates into lots of experiments, disappointment, and bemusement. Finally the enterprise realizes that a more holistic and strategic approach is needed — an approach where the focus is not on the platforms but on consumer behavior and how social influence can be harnessed for greater benefit. At that point, clients might come back to us to help them connect the dots across all customer touch points and at different stages in the marketing funnel.

The greatest challenge is in explaining to clients that Social Influence Marketing is much more about consumer behavior than it is about media, and that we’re not talking about a channel through which to “push a message.” How a marketer thinks about customer engagement at different stages of the relationship needs to change.

By the way, in some cases, our own people have had to learn about thinking about customer engagement differently, too, which is not terribly surprising given that we all bring different experiences and perspectives. And it is worth noting that we learn from our clients, as well.

2. At Bazaarvoice, we strive to make social media measurable and impactful to the bottom line. But companies will always be tempted to dabble in new technologies and media that do not have clear line of sight to profitability. How do you advise brands on their investment strategy for social media, as well as their ROI expectations?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with dabbling as long as you don’t put your brand at risk. It often helps for brands to do that – they discover more tactically what they can do for themselves and where and how best we can help them.

In terms of ROI expectations, that’s trickier. The biggest cost is in research and in people. Most clients understand the people costs but some don’t always realize that to do this correctly, they need to focus on doing the right kinds of research to understand the social behavior of their customers and potential customers. We encourage our clients to have a small innovation budget but to also try and integrate their social activities into their existing marketing or business plans.

While you may not be able to overlay a six-sigma process on to social media, some of the rigor that’s applied to other marketing and business efforts can be brought to this space. ROI expectations really depend on the specific social media activity. Some are far more measurable than others.

3. You recently spoke at the Graphing Social Patterns Conference, hosted by O’Reilly. Excluding the social networks themselves, what kinds of new business models do you see emerging from the insight we can now gain from the social graph?

Gosh, if I could answer that question well, I wouldn’t be on the agency side! More seriously, there are a couple of trends that I believe will be significant in the next few years. First and foremost is the portability of the social graph. The Facebook Connect and Google FriendConnect initiatives are going to open up some explosive opportunities for big brands. How they take advantage of those will be interesting. It quickly translates into business models supporting how you sell on your website, who does the selling for you, whether there’s a significant traffic uptick and whether you incentivize customers more directly.

Another important trend is around micro-interactions and location based services tied into the social graph. When you have new services around the micro-interactions, the question is how do you charge for them? Do they provide enough value to even charge for? Are they of the scale that they can be advertising supported? It leads to a lot of interesting questions. With $2.99 iPhone apps, we’re seeing new pricing bands and simpler services. I think this is just the beginning.

4. Your blog, Going Social Now, features a number of social media tools. As a consumer, well-educated on social media, what tools and technologies have become essential for you?

I’m fond of twitter as it tells me what people are thinking and talking about. This is of interest both from the perspective as it keeps me connected to everyday activity of consumers from all walks of life (the “everyone” tab is what I’m specifically referring to) and also because I get to peak into how other social media practitioners think.

In terms of the most essential tool, it is hard to name any single one. Each tool has its own place and purpose. Probably most important to me is that I don’t think about these as disparate tools. Rather, I feel I have new and exciting ways to stay connected with my social graph and the tools allow for that. So in a sense, it is not the tools that are essential but rather easy access and communication with my social graph is. If one tool were to fail, I could just switch to another.

5. From your AA|RF experience, can you talk through an example of a brand that really gets social media and how they are using it to achieve specific business objectives?

It really depends on the brand and what its specific business or marketing objectives are. For every client it differs.

A great example though is what we helped Levi do with Project Runway in the social influence-marketing realm. They leveraged social media (creating an online equivalent of Project Runway) to take some of the excitement around the TV show online and changing brand perceptions with a specific customer segment. They were able to see a direct lift in sales to a core customer segment based on the Levi 501 Design Challenge. It was a huge social success relating very directly back to business objective.

Another example, at a completely different end of the spectrum is how we helped AT&T with testing Microsoft Surface in select stores across the country. While this isn’t obviously social media, it allows for greater social interactions around a product in the physical domain. Digital goes beyond the web after all.

6. You’ve trademarked the idea of Social Influence Marketing (SIM), one of the most important marketing dimensions today, and many of our readers our clients that have taken a critical first step by capturing user-generated content. Can you share any advice or resources on a maturity model that our readers can follow to help make SIM a true organizational function?

I’d say that Social Influence Marketing (see how Shiv compares SIM to WOM and social shopping) is just beginning to mature. Most important is to look beyond all the fancy statistics and social platforms out there. Rather companies should think about their specific customer segments and understand the social behavior within those segments and where that activity is taking place. They also need to understand more deeply how social influence works, who influences whom and why and where? Figuring that out on a per brand, per product, per customer segment basis is critical. Not too many companies are doing that because it is hard. It requires being slightly more analytical, scientific and maybe even academic about marketing than we’ve been in the past.

A word of advice – not all user generated content is created equal just as not every additional YouTube view matters equally. You’ve got to figure out which UGC supports your brands and of the millions of view your YouTube clips, which of those were of target customers influencing brand decisions.

7. How do you see this social fabric we now have affecting advertising?

We’re just beginning to see the change. Hypertargeting from MySpace is one example as is Facebook Beacon. They’re the first steps. I believe the greatest opportunities lie when a brand gets its customers to do the marketing for them. Nothing new there but given that we’re influencing and interacting with each other online so much more, digital offers new opportunities to allow for this to happen.

It’ll definitely affect traditional display advertising over time. The reason is simple – display banners on social networks don’t work (we all know why) and over time as the rest of the web begins to integrate features that look and feel like social networks, they’ll become more immersive reducing the potential impact of traditional display advertising. Will that hurt display advertising? I don’t believe so as we’ll start to see more and more innovations that bridge the display advertising worlds with social influence marketing.

Another example is how when a brand does something in social media (establishing a blog for example) it really improves their search rankings. We saw this with Ford and the blogs we launched for them. It changes the SEO space and influences paid search decisions. All positive in the long term.