The marketing world may have woken up to the potential of social networking sites, but in the vast majority of cases brand involvement is till akin to a nervous teenager at her first party - happy to be there, but unsure what move to take next.
While a growing number of brands have already added a token Facebook or Myspace angle to their existing campaign, or are busy proclaiming how they are ‘listening’ to the conversations taking place within SNS, many in the industry would argue that, although a good start, this is nowhere near enough. “Most brands say ‘We are listening to social networks’, and they are, from a PR angle,” says Pushkar Sane, general manager of Starcom IP Asia. “But, if you are just listening, I don’t think that is of use.”
How then should brands approach the complex - and often unforgiving - world of social media? The key lies in greater interaction. Just like the nervous teenager, brands need to become more confident and start placing themselves deeper in the conversation.
“Any brand that wants to engage with people needs to listen and understand what people are talking about, adds Sane. “It needs to understand their insights, understand their problems and understand the opportunities, and then respond.”
According to Sane, it is about not only listening but also formulating a strategy and then engaging with people. And, more importantly, addressing them as people rather than just trotting out a brand message. In short, participation.
“I think that brands have really got to understand that they don’t just buy ads in this space, they’ve really got to participate,” affirms Amanda King, president and managing partner, Asia-Pacific, Tribal DDB Worldwide. “If they want to weave themselves into the fabric of social media, they’ve got to behave in a way that allows their prospective audience to participate with the brand.”
This participation is, of course, very much an integral part of what social media are. They provide the public with a digital space in which they are active, as opposed to the conventional broadcast model in which the audience is passive, receiving content, and along with it adverts. Up until now, though, an entire brand building philosophy has been built on this model of bombarding an audience of millions with your brand until the message hit home. “Now that model has been turned upside down,” says Sane. “Now you listen and respond and if people like your response, if people think you are genuine and you are really addressing their needs and problems, then they self-amplify your message and market it to their peers.”
Credibility is crucial and an important part of striking a chord with the public, is the degree in which brands open up themselves to criticism and then whether or not they are seen to absorb and act on this feedback. This apparent loss of control is seen as an act of surrender by many brands as it goes against the grain of how they have religiously defined themselves.
“This isn’t always a comfortable situation, which is why you can have companies which are very fearful of social media,” says Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific Director of Ogilvy PR’s 360 Digital Influence.
However, Patrick DSouza, client services director, Euro RSCG 4D Singapore, says that brands should not be afraid of joining in the conversation. After all, people will most likely still talk about them, whether they are in the social media space or not. “Consumers are quite fair and no one is going to bag a brand for something they didn’t do. Usually the community itself is self-censured and members who are out of line or are making unfair accusations are cut out,” he says.
Indeed, even negative feedback can be turned into a positive. The act of taking on board criticism, for example, allows a brand to tweak its message or alter its product in a more fluid way, which before would have normally involved market research and R&D teams, and better connects companies to their consumers. The fact that SNS offers a very public space where customers can air the grievances should lead to increased levels of customer service.
“You should be trying to find out things you don’t like,” says Crampton. “Before, you’d find out when your third quarter sales went down, now you can find out in real time that you have a problem.”
Brands also need to be more flexible in how they approach social media, avoiding a one size fits all approach to marketing. As social media is by definition, community based - whether that is geographically, interest or digitally-based - it is very difficult to transfer a global campaign to the digital environment. This is of particular relevance in Asia, which has continental divides ranging from the obvious geography and language to the more subtle cultural, religious, social and economic divides.
“In China, a lot of the bulletin boards are extremely popular, whereas Japan is very much a society based around mobile social networks,” says Crampton. “All of the countries are very different. Look at Twitter, 140 characters in English is not a lot, but in Chinese where each character is a word, it is far more. So the way in which you use the same tool in a different market would be very different.”
Social activation is highly local, so social media campaigns need to be relevant to a particular group of people locally in that market. At the same time, however, many social networks are the same across various markets, albeit differentiated by local market language preferences, so campaigns can still connect across markets on a common platform. “You need to be consistent and regionally scaleable, but at the same time in the local market your relevance needs to be based on local insights and what local people are looking at - but there will be spill over,” says Sane.
In the end though, what counts for marketers is effectiveness. As much as brands would like have a more involved social media presence, furthering brand equity at the cash register is still the priority. King argues that truly engaging in the social media space in itself can lead to greater levels of effectiveness. “The greater the level of participation, the greater the depth of the relationship you have with your prospective audience,” she says. “You increase the depth of your coverage, you increase the depth of your influence and it’s a proven fact that a greater depth of interaction leads to increased sales.”
“We’re starting to see the first signs of social media moving to more of an ‘adult’ stage,” agrees Sane, adding that this is evidenced by attempts to monetise SNS platforms.
“Brands are starting to get down to business now that they see they have quite a captive audience. Where that monetisation is going to come from is the business sector, from brands who want to market to their base and see their customers as a key asset.”
This article was originally published in 24 September 2009 Autumn issue of Digital Media.