The advent of social media in the late 90s opened up a new frontier in Marketing. Marketers climbed aboard the internet bandwagon, to explore the ‘new media’ terrain. Initial apprehension would give away to delight, as consumers took to social media by the droves.
Today, social media entails nearly 2.1 billion accounts, just over 2/3rds of active Internet users. The educated public is unanimous in heralding it as a ‘Revolution’. And marketers are leading the charge, thrilled by the ‘unprecedented opportunity’ to connect directly with consumers.
Since then, the buzz of online marketing activity has intensified. Marketers are vying with each other for consumer ‘eyeballs’. Budgets too have expanded to propel the online frenzy. These trends suggest that social media can no longer be classified as a ‘niche‘ activity. It is integral to the overall marketing strategy and brand-building effort.
Yet online brand building remains the ‘Holy Grail’ of Marketing.
Marketers have inserted their brands online, using traditional media tools. Social media is treated as yet another marketing channel – yet another avenue to acquire and sell to customers. Adaptations of traditional marketing and promotional content constitute social media marketing. The ‘leads-sales’ drive is so strong, that social media channels are flooded with product pitches and promotions. Meanwhile marketers (and their sales counterparts) ambitiously expect these hawkish pitches to be carried along consumer networks.
At times the efforts do pay off, as ‘hot offers’ garner ‘likes, ‘retweets’, ‘shares’ and ‘conversion’. But do such flash-in-the-plan instances translate into sustained consumer engagement? Does brand affinity get built along the way? Probably not…
Perhaps the problem lies in classic marketer hubris: the tendency to view the universe with the myopic lens of our own short-term goals.
Consumed in the leads-conversion game, we have overlooked the very essence of social media – a platform for ‘social’ interactions. People go online primarily to socialize, and thereafter, to be entertained.
They seek out communities based on shared interests. They chat, listen to music, share photos, watch videos of babies, puppies etc. Against this milieu, marketers creep up on them with banal pitches, hoping to acquire, sell and build affinity…
While social activity is the main pursuit of consumers online, they do use the medium to research products and services.
But in order to sell, we must engaging with them on their own terms. We must align our approach to their interests, otherwise they will tune us out.
Simply put, in order to generate leads and sales we must invest in building relationships. We must be interesting, informative and entertaining. We must display these traits, because consumer tell us that they are important to purchase considerations. Consumers strongly believe that brand trust and likeability are important sales drivers.
That said, these are not new revelations. Marketers know these Truths. But we pay little heed to them, because brand-building is too esoteric, too intangible, too futuristic and simply too hard.
And yet, if we are not attuned to the psyche of social media consumers, if we do not engage with them without trying to ‘sell’, we run the risk of being disliked, distrusted, and dismissed.
Whether marketers like it or not, friends, celebrities, music and puppies dominate the ‘mind-share’ of the online tribe. And no matter how hard we try, we will never be as interesting. Our best hope lies in weaving the online ideology into our brand-building efforts, and feeding off subject-matters that interest our audience.
On the other hand, we could persist with our old approach. We could continue with our aggressive pitches. Who cares if we annoy a few people along the way, right? Wrong. Research indicates that 59 percent of customers use social media only to ‘vent’, while 72 percent of brand choices are made based on social media feedback.
The power of social media is such that every irate consumer is a potential reporter. They will report their experience online and there will be people who listen – and brand perceptions and purchase decisions will be formed. Indeed social media is the great leveler, where David takes on Goliath and wins.
Therefore, it would be prudent to approach this potent platform humbly and patiently, focusing less on selling and more on engaging.
Given the online ethos, brand-building may well remain the Holy Grail of Marketing.
Nevertheless, the following strategies are worthy steps in the right direction:
We must actively listen to what is being said about our brand online. Active listening implies having a process for monitoring online conversations, gathering feedback, reviewing findings, and using the insights to refine our products and services. And we must do this on an ongoing basis.
Staying away from online forums is not advisable. It is important that we participate and protect our brand reputation.
Customers will complain; we must address their complaints swiftly and resolutely. Unresponsiveness, aggression or ineptitude will tarnish our brand reputation. It is ironic that companies that otherwise spend crores on advertising , relegate the task of dealing with customers to junior staff members. These hapless minions, with limited linguist skill and training, can dent a carefully crafted brand image with the click of button.
How often have we as customers received overzealous greetings, unctuous apologies and canned responses that do little to resolve the issue at hand?
But let us not pick on junior staff; the problem lies elsewhere. Companies do not think it necessary to adequately staff these important ‘windows’ to their brand. This thinking persists, because cheap labour sits better with short-term profits. And because brand building is as a long-term pursuit.
Well, not any more. Irate customers will waste no time in pounding their key-boards and airing their grievances online. Bad news will travel swiftly through their networks. Perceptions and purchase decisions will be formed. And business will suffer. Alas, brand-building is a business imperative in the social media age.
But then again, cost considerations are important. Many businesses operate on thin margins and cannot afford to hire quality staff even if they see the need for it. To compensate, companies must craft a comprehensive response policy, including guidelines for addressing customer feedback. Staff must be empathy trained, or at a minimum, coached for linguistic proficiency, so that they develop the finesse to adapt scripted responses, instead of posting them verbatim.
It goes without saying, that resolution of grievances could turn an irate customer into a brand evangelist and win-over the online tribe.
We all like positive feedback and publicize it at any given opportunity – as we should. On the flip side, we should moderate our tendency to block or hide negative postings. Every brand is bound to have its share of positive and negative feedback. Building brand credibility requires balanced representation of consumer feedback.
Instead of being afraid of negative feedback, we must see it as a chance to showcase our customer service.
Satisfactory resolution of consumer complaints could be a windfall in rebuilding trust.
Numerous social media platforms abound; we must not waste precious resources on all of them. It is better to be selective about our brand presence and choose sites based social demographics and cultural fit with our brand.
Popular platforms include:
- Facebook – by far the best platform for any brand by virtue of the size (1.71 billion) and diversity of its user base
- Twitter – effective for short (140 character) messages to large audiences
- Instagram and Pinterest- great for retail brands, particularly clothing lines
- LinkedIn – for business-to-business brands or those trying to connect with corporate influencers
- Google Plus – has had limited success but is effective for B-to-B brands, particularly in the technology sector
Being active on a few popular sites does not mean ignoring the rest. Setting up a company profile on major social media platforms is a ‘future-secure’ strategy, that would also boost search engine marketing (SEM) activities.
Connecting with powerful influencers – be they individuals or brands – who have a sizeable fan following enables new brands to ride their co-tails. This strategy affords a quick way for new entrants to build credibility . Mentioning influencers in our posts and tagging them on shared content, goes along way in expanding our audience.
We must not overlook paid-media platforms in spreading brand awareness. Marketing clutter and diminishing organic reach have carved an important role for paid platforms.
According to JD Lasica of Socialmedia.biz, a good rule of thumb is ‘1:4’: “post four status updates about outside news items or discoveries for every post promoting a product. And when you do mention a product or service, try to do so in a helpful way.” he advises.
Instead of churning out content robotically, we must step back and think about what makes the post interesting and ‘shareworthy’.
Get creative, interject text-based posts with video clips, use humour (appropriate to brand image – a slipper slope if not executed carefully). Look for ways to tap into topics that intrigue the audience.
Of course, we must also showcase our products and services. But exercising restraint and ‘soft-landing’ our messages is paramount.
Our content strategy must be rooted in adding value to our audience. Positioning our site as the ‘go-to’ place for all category related information (including competitors) would build credibility. Some marketers are wary of this approach; let’s face it, consumer are bound to find the information online. Streamlining their search would be helpful and go a long way in relationship building.
Social media has enabled direct connection to our customers. We must strengthen that connection by ‘co-creating’.
People love to be asked their opinion – involve them in designing products or advertising campaigns. Run a contest. The caveat however is that if we seek opinions, we must act on them. If this is too risky for the brand, we could simply ask for votes on preferred ads or product designs.
Either way we are engaging the audience in a fun process that is bound to build brand affinity.
We must invite customers to comment on our posts. And when they do, we must listen and have a mechanism to deal with negativity.
Many companies (including a few iconic brands) have made the mistake of running online campaigns without anticipating negative reactions or instituting a communication policy and have paid for the oversight.
We must keep our social media posts regularly updated. Developing a posting schedule is a good idea. The mantra to acquire and retain followers is: ‘engaging, informative and entertaining’. Excessive posting and frequent updates could annoy our audience. The basic criterion should be that the post adds value to customers or to our brand.
The brand personality that we invested crores in building, must be reflected in all our social posts. Our social media ‘voice’, while aligned to the brand, must present the ‘human side’ of our organization. ‘Corporate-speak’ would alienate the audience.
So too must we strive to present a consistent image across all online communication. Ideally, communication activities should be housed under a single function, such as Corporate Branding. But in many places Marketing, Corporate Communication and Corporate Branding teams each post content, aligned to functional goals. To mitigate brand misrepresentation, it is important to institute brand standards, templates and communication guidelines. The Corporate Branding function should be tasked with brand stewardship, including publishing and monitoring brand standards.
The great boon of social media is real-time data capture and analytics. We must always monitor and measure our performance. Keeping track of users, page views, comments, likes, shares, and other such metrics, would improve our social media activities.
Last but not the least, we must measure brand sentiment. We must analyze positive and negative feedback, benchmarked against competitor performance. We must share the findings company-wide and use the insights to refine our strategy.
For if we have done it right – if we are informative, engaging and responsive – we would see brand sentiment tilt in our favour. And cash registers would be ringing, without having to rely on margin-eroding ‘offers’.
About the Author
Sanjita Cariappa is a management consultant and content writer with over 18 years of experience in Marketing, Branding and Corporate Communication. She received her MBA from Duke University, USA.