Brand leadership through social media
Not so long ago, the relationship that brands had with their customers was a one-way street. The brand was the boss. They told their customers what to like and how to like it. The only say the customer had was the decision to buy. This is no longer the case. Customers are very publicly talking back and it is making the management teams of some brands very nervous. Web-based social networking platforms give customers power never seen before. Now one voice can be heard by thousands of people. Brands need to learn to deal with this evolution, so here is a primer.
First, some background on how the internet has altered consumer behaviour. The internet, and particularly the rise of social media, has allowed people with similar interests to connect. This becomes obvious when one trawls through Twitter, where the common social network model of simply connecting with people you know tends to give way to people connecting in groups according to interest. Indeed, people interested in any topic imaginable from all areas of the world are connecting. It’s like subject-based forums on steroids. People are forming tribes.
Humans have always formed tribes. Religion, family, sports and fashion are all examples of tribal behaviour. The difference now is that any interest group can form a tribe almost instantly. Social media has allowed any fringe idea to become the basis of a tribe and a movement. People want desperately to be connected, but, even more importantly, they want to be led. We are in a time of massive change, which is driven by everybody’s desire to do things in a new way and to be heard.
Barack Obama’s recent landslide victory is a good example of this. He promised change, he communicated differently and led with integrity. He connected to his audience through social media. He started a movement, formed a tribe and then he and his followers charged to victory. What the world discovered is that you can now make an ad campaign as slick as you want, but if the product is poor then it simply doesn’t matter.
So “advertising is dead” in the sense the old methods don’t work the same way they used to. Obama’s opponents didn’t fully understand the impact that social networking has had on society. They continued to use the old and trusted methods of marketing. These apparently transparent methods are diminishing in influence as social networking begins to infiltrate every media touch-point. In two recent articles I wrote for Anthill I talked about how this is already happening to television and how the newspaper industry needs to change to avoid becoming irrelevant.
Social media is much more than a passing phase. Human civilisation is built around social interaction. It’s what the people want and this new media is only going to get bigger. It will eventually become part of everything. Individual social media companies might fade away (MySpace seems to be in that category) as better designed products come onto the market, but the world has spoken and it wants to be connected. Brands that don’t adapt to this reality will be left behind. They will become the guy at the party that nobody wants to sit next to because he just keeps talking about himself.
Blogs have become socially and commercially influential. From what started out as individuals chatting on about their lives, blogs have become business tools and money making ventures. They influence groups, buying patterns and fashion. They are modern tribal leaders.
Not so long ago commentators speculated that blogging was simply a passing fad. What these commentators didn’t realise was that it was yet to achieve maturation and once it had it would signal big trouble for the large media organisations. Now anyone with a camera or a desire to write is ‘the press’. This pattern is being repeated for micro-blogging, a category in which Twitter is the current market leader. Some commentators question the relevance of utilising Twitter to listen to people “drone on about their lives”. But Twitter, and other micro-blogs, are in the early stages of their development. They too will mature, most probably much quicker than the original blogs, and enable much bigger tribes to develop around even more specific subject matter.
The tribal leaders of these new social media can be reached and persuaded to support you, no matter what platform they decide to use. Unlike the old ‘one way’ approach however, they need to be interacted with on their own terms. Provided they have a group of true fans, they can influence hundreds of thousands of people – in a matter of hours. This is what gives them such power.
And this is what marketers in the current environment have to understand. The ‘mass-market’ model is on the decline. What is needed now is a pattern of marketing to the ‘early adopters’ – the ones at the front of the bell curve who have a true interest in what you have to offer – and form a base of evangelists that will market for you. You no longer have to aim to connect with everyone. This really leaves the field wide open for the smaller brands to break through – the ones willing to challenge.
The age of the challenger
In marketing speak, a ‘challenger brand’ is code for ‘the small brand’. A challenger brand is one that is meant to be fast, flexible and innovative in its communications. But in my view the word ‘challenger’ should instead be short-hand for ‘emerging leader’.
Emerging leaders challenge the status quo, they challenge themselves and they connect with others who have similar ideas – those people who need a leader to show what to do and inspire them. The market leader wants the status quo to remain just that. They want to speak and be heard in a mass market. No discussion thanks. The challenger realises that, in order to create a movement there needs to be systems in place for everybody in that tribe to be heard, and they commit to leading that tribe with everything they’ve got.
Traditional advertising is not about interaction with the individual. It is predominately a one-way conversation to a mass audience. But nobody likes to be forced into making decisions. This is why the traditional advertising model is beginning to fail. It relies on mass media, and this media is itself being transformed by social networks.
What can social networking do for your brand?
All of this may sound a bit scary for brand managers. It’s true that it does take time and effort to build a community. And to be truly effective, you have to obey some rules. Even so, it is not a hard thing to do. It takes far more time and resources to build that fan base with traditional advertising. Be honest, be helpful and contribute to the community and you’ll get supporters fast.
Social networking is far more than having a Facebook profile. It is any platform that gives the end user an ability to contribute. Many companies have realised that developing an internal social media platform can aid in communication but have yet to work out how it can help shape their brand personality.
A good social media strategy accepts that you can’t do everything at once. A company can employ a social platform to perform customer service, to connect directly with customers (thereby humanising the brand), to obtain demographic information on individuals to improve the effectiveness of direct marketing or to harness a mass of surplus cognitive resources to generate new ideas.
You can’t do everything with social media, but as long as you are focused you will be able to do much more than you may expect.
Where to start
In the coming months, many companies will try to market through social networks and many will fail. There are, of course, ways of dramatically upping the chances of success, not least of which is making sure you hire a company that knows the space well. Making sure you are across the fundamentals will help move things along quickly.
The first thing any company moving into social networking should decide is the overall goal. Knowing what you want to achieve and why you are doing it may seem obvious but is something that is easily overlooked if you rush into a project too quickly.
As with any good marketing activity, you need to know how your customers think and behave. Unlike traditional advertising, marketing online is very data-rich. It is possible to know exactly what your customers are looking at, how long they spend doing it and who they then talk to about the experience. Make sure you know as much of this information as is possible before you develop a strategy any further.
From there, deciding what channels you wish to utilise becomes a very important choice. You should know where your target market is by this stage, so deciding if Facebook, Twitter, Bebo or any other platform is right should be easy. Deciding to create your own platform is a bigger step but can be very rewarding if it is done correctly. Again, make sure you are getting good advice and a solid strategy and don’t just assume that if you make something it will get used.
Measurement is important in all areas of business and social networking is no exception. Developing good metric methods should be an early priority. Remember that it is possible to measure everything but not all information has value. Knowing what you are looking at is vital. If you are hiring a marketing firm to build you a social networking campaign, it makes sense to have part of the payment tied to the performance of that campaign. If you are building a network to get staff talking to each other and your customers, the quality of the content will go down if you assign KPIs to ‘platforms usage’ only.
Most importantly, make sure everyone involved knows what your ‘voice’ is. It is wise to develop a policy around social networking usage, but if that policy is too tight you will lose support. This is about people. Learn that it is OK to give up control of your marketing message and become part of the conversation. Be honest, be objective and be involved. And do not leave your community. You have made a promise to these people to listen to them. If you stop participating, they will abandon you in an instant.
There is no better time to start developing social media strategies. All market segments are spending a lot more time on social networks (the time spent on Facebook grew by over 500 percent in the year Dec ’07 to Dec ’08) and in this time of economic downturn it may be wise to attract new customers from further afield. In the not-too-distant future, every company will have a social networking policy, so getting in early will give you an edge.
Marketing in social networks is not rocket science. It may involve technology but, at its core, it is what human civilisation is built upon. If you can hold a conversation you can market in social media.
So get good advice and get moving. The world is changing and the challengers are going to come out on top. They will create movements and lead tribes. They will interact and not be afraid of change. They will know how to listen and realise the greatest power they have is to empower their customers.
If you understand that these networks have all been built because it’s what your customers want, then the challenger, the leader, can be you.
Mark Cameron is the creative director and a partner at Working Three. He has been developing digital strategy for a range of clients for the last eight years. More articles from him are on the Working Three blog.