Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Truth About Social Media (New Article for Mediacat)

The Truth About Social Media

For the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been getting questions from clients about social media – how to get involved, whether to get involved?

Let me say at the outset that I am a big fan of brands engaging in social media (and all new media) in the right way for the right reasons. I’ve been involved in pioneering internet businesses and digital marketing campaigns and (like sustainability) I simply think it’s the way the world is going. So I am not one of those people telling their clients that Twitter is a fad (and that it's "much safer to stay with TV advertising" therefore). Did you know by the way that David Ogilvy once predicted that all the fuss about TV advertising would blow over and clients would return to print advertising, with all it’s evident strengths in putting a hard selling proposition to the audience? I digress – but anyway I just want to say I'm a fan - I am not being a ‘David Ogilvy’ here.

However I do tell clients that – if they are going to approach it in a conventional way – they have absolutely no place or role within social media. A ‘conventional’ approach would mean things like ‘how do we get messages about our brand out in social media’. If that’s your mindset then stick to your television commercials and your junk mail and (as the saying goes) ‘leave well alone’.

To explain why I say this; consider how misleading the word ‘media’ is within the term social media. It isn’t a broadcast channel, a stadium, a mass medium of any sort. It is a criss-crossing network of individuals chatting to each other, sharing photos from the weekend, interesting stuff they have found, their opinions on the World Cup… In other words social media are a lot like a telephone network. Would you as a brand interrupt my telephone conversation with a friend or relative? No, of course not. So why would it be okay for you to butt in when we chat online?

But it isn’t exactly one-to-one and private. That was just to dramatise my point. Others can overhear these conversations. It’s more like two of us chatting on the bus. And that makes for a good basic guide to how brands and companies (or factually their employees or agencies) should behave. If you would break into a conversation on a bus under the same circumstances, then it is okay to do so in social media too.

An example. One of your customers is complaining to a friend about the TERRIBLE service they got from your company. Should you interrupt? You will be tempted to as basically there could be a LOT more people listening than on a bus. But the answer is: only if you are willing to sort out the problem this person has. If you are personally shocked that they should have such a bad experience, and your motive is to put it right then sure – jump in, given them your business card and say so. I’ve seen that happen and it stops the conversation – because the customer is now happy.

But if you simply want to counteract or somehow “answer” the criticisms, forget it. You tell them that it’s not usually a problem, imply that it’s their fault and so on, you will make things ten times worse. And bystanders will conclude that you are a powerless corporate idiot, who is incapable of fixing this person’s problem, who instead will trot out any meaningless phrases to try to make it sound okay… I’ve seen that happen too. And when it happens repeatedly both the individual and the company develop a bad reputation – with others on the bus (or forum) chipping in that ‘this always happens’.

Another common situation is the whole question of talking to people about your brand. Once again it’s all about imagining the situation on the bus. You are sat there in your office worker clothes with a bunch of (let’s say) teenagers, or parents bringing their young children from school. How are you going to break into their conversation? Obviously you are going to make a complete fool of yourself so forget it. For instance very few digital agency “virals” ever take off in a big way, because they just aren’t as funny or relevant (to teens) as the ones made by teens themselves.

What if you get someone who does fit the profile to do the talking for you? There are successes of this sort. For instance LEGO reached out to Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs) to recruit “Ambassadors”, a hit programme. However you do need to tread carefully. Some “guerrilla” marketing outfits in the USA hire actors to go into social situations to talk about their new product or brand. Literally they will hire actors to stand in bars shouting orders for that new drink, and chatting to people around them – or hire (using incentives) teenagers to talk to friends about new products. P&G owns one of these buzz networks (Tremor) and has had some success they claim in getting teenage boys to talk dandruff as part of the sell for Head & Shoulders shampoo. My problem with this approach is it is unethical, even for marketing - and a CRISIS waiting to happen. If it’s authentic and not manipulative (like the LEGO example) then fine. But tread carefully.

The other thing that works ok in social media for old style marketers is called brand utility. This is the equivalent (on the bus) to handing out sweets or goodies. The movie “300” gave away big storage space for photos to users of MySpace (back in the days where storage was limited). It happened to come pre-loaded with images from the movie “300”. Lots of the grateful recipients thought the movie looked cool too. So they checked it out. And a hit was born. Nothing too wrong with that you could argue, and it has become one of the mainstays of digital agencies’ marketing strategy toolkit.

My own view? All of this is a tragedy. It’s like discovering a whole new continent, full of lush resources and possibilities… and building a McDonalds on the beach. The real potential of social media in my view is its plasticity – it’s potential for building whole new forms of media, which happen to be authored by a brand. Just as Disney make movies, cruises, theme parks… Disney can also make great social media experiences (for instance a family treasure hunt might be a nice idea – or a programme of free online piano lessons to celebrate a music themed movie?)

Ah yes you will say but we aren’t Disney we make furniture, or electronics, or jeans, or even headache tablets. But round any product there is always something humanly fascinating. Even headache tablets are part of a broader field of topics which magazines pour words about (exam stress, period pain, ageing…). Find the fascination in the market and engage people in a new way. Be a media owner, not a media buyer. That’s my advice. It’s not the easiest way – but I believe it’s the only way to really belong.

1 comment:

paul macfarlane said...

THANK YOU for this post. For saying what needs to be said and now I don't have to say it. ; )