Being brand social

While extent of social media involvement by different media may vary, as a marketing communications channel it is here to stay

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'Social media' is the current buzzword in the marketing lexicon of leading brands around the world. At the heart of the emergence of social media lies the growing prominence of online conversations.

Everyday, millions of people are sharing content on an ever-increasing number of blogs, social networks, message boards, wikis and media-sharing websites. These social media tools, facilitated by technology known as Web 2.0, help users connect with other users, form networks, and publish information, opinion and perspectives while engaging in conversations.

A lot of these conversations are about brands, making it imperative that they cannot ignore 'online chatter'. The rise of social media has posed interesting challenges to traditional means of marketing. Brands no longer control messaging, attention and influence as consumers are engaging with brands with or without them. Clearly, the relationship between brand and audience has changed bringing with it new opportunities and risks.

What's in it for brands?
Social media is one of the most productive and cost-effective marketing channels today. However, many brands make significant social media marketing blunders-mostly because marketers are diving in without a clear strategy and without understanding the 'social' part of the social media.

Social media is not entirely about creating ROI through monetisation or pushing your corporate spiel, but works better when focused on customer service, creating value, measuring feedback, building brand loyalty and managing brand reputation.

Consider a few corporate social media success stories. Blendtec has achieved 'five-fold increase in sales' through their funny and original 'Will It Blend' series of viral videos on YouTube, where Tom Dickson, the CEO of Blendtec, attempts to blend objects in a Blendtec blender.

IBM was the first large enterprise to embrace employee blogging and now boasts thousands of blogs related to every facet of its business giving customers a direct connection to IBMers.

Starbuck has given a new meaning to customer empowerment through the website 'My Starbucks Idea' that seeks suggestions from customers which are then voted on by other users, the best of which will be implemented by the company.

US-based online retailer Zappos and cable service provider Comcast have emerged as leaders in offering exceptional customer service via Twitter.

Ford has used social media PR to its great advantage by creating positive online impressions in a time when the US auto industry is in shambles. Dell has a truly cross-platform approach to social media with an active engagement on all major social media tools.

In Oman, Oman Air is emerging as a social media savvy brand. It is the first airline in the region to have a corporate blog as well as a simultaneous presence on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. These success stories are motivating many brands to hop on to the social media bandwagon.

Why do a lot of brands struggle with social media?
For every Zappos or Comcast, there are hundreds of brands lost in social media waters. Social media requires a new approach to interacting with consumers, including a culture of openness, transparency and responsiveness.

The top social media brands keep aside their marketing hat when engaging with social media. They understand that social media is not pushing down messages down the throats of their audience but having engaging conversations and learning by listening. They have a long-term social media strategy that is aligned to solid business objectives and integrated with other channels in the marketing mix.

Social media smart brands have unique organisational structures that ensure the smooth delivery of their social media strategy. They are also willing to learn on the road and work around the bumps. They understand that social media is a pull medium where usage and interaction is totally dependent on the user choosing to do so.

Ultimately, your social media efforts will not pay off if they are not relevant or don't create value to your community. While keeping in mind that social media involvement depends largely on the maturity of the online community (early adopters vs. emerging users) and the nature of brand being marketed (technology, travel, automotive and FMCG brands offer more possibilities for online conversations), social media as a marketing communications channel is here to stay.

Any brand that is considering exploring this domain should think more of whether it can do good to the social web than the social web can do well for it. Ultimately, this will determine your social media success.

The author is a creative supervisor at Wunderman. He is an award-winning digital copywriter and a co-author of the marketing book 'The Age of Conversation'.

Being brand social
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