It can be quite hard to be clear about the effect social media has had on brands and the broader marketing landscape. Some people would have you believe that the online global conversation that social media has unleashed is a revolution that brands simply have to be involved in if they are to stay relevant. Others say it's only really significant within specific, albeit important, areas of marketing such as customer service. Either way, there can be no doubt that social media in its many guises has changed people's habits and expectations and therefore it remains an area of ongoing fascination for brands who pride themselves on being close to their consumers and the marketplace. However, for such brands to join the conversation in a credible way...
...is generally easier said than done.
How Did We Get Here?
Firstly, it’s worth reminding ourselves how quickly this global conversation has evolved. Only five years ago, the sight of their customers spilling out onto the open web and talking about their lives and more importantly their views on products and services came as a shock to big brands. Such people were, initially, dismissed as mad or irrelevant. For example, six years ago, the BBC noted that, 'there is a perception that bloggers are sad, joyless people in their underwear who sit in front of their computers all day'. The idea that people could collaboratively write an online encyclopedia was thought to be - at best - bizarre. Social networks were seen as outposts of the brain dead, depraved and even the dangerous. And Tweeters were initially open to ridicule by the great and the good.
However, that gradually changed over time. The blogosphere became a professional space for informed and often erudite discourse, Wikipedia became an online Britannica, social networks grew into multi-gazillion dollar businesses and Twitter developed into a global information network of such standing that many of the world’s most influential people signed up.
During that time, many different experiments were conducted by corporations trying to lever their brands into the conversation and to gain some valuable relevancy and buzz. Many of these approaches were greeted with the sound of silence, others were attacked as irrelevant or worse, and a few have been judged as credible and gathered that elusive – and commercially valuable – social currency.
However, the global conversation remains a tricky area for big brands where the gap between success and humiliating public failure is small. For many, the resulting high-wire act can just seem too risky to make it worthwhile. The DNA of the marketing industry is about command-and-control, reach-and-frequency and the delivery of big concepts, not a chat over the garden fence with whoever might happen to show up on the day.
What's The Problem?
So why is it so difficult for brands to take part in conversational spaces that are becoming such a normal part of everyday life?
Part of the difficulty is that the online conversational environment itself is changing so quickly. For a good while, conversations were in nerdy forums or restricted to comments on the bottom of blog posts. However, slowly the conversation broke out of these niche areas thanks to, among other innovations, Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter’s growth and YouTube’s webcam culture. The rise of the smart phone extended the reach of conversational spaces still further creating always-on, personalised digital grapevines. Today, the global conversational environment remains in a state of rapid flux as networked media becomes more sophisticated and prevalent. For example, many new devices have conversational features baked-in and new innovations allow people to use non-verbal ways of signaling to others – just as they do in real-life.
Additionally, it can be very difficult for a brand or corporation to identify what is and what is not a credible conversation for it to initiate or join. It's just too easy to assume that because it seemed like a valid subject for an advertising or PR campaign it will also be credible in a conversational space. 'Of course people will want to chat about the effectiveness of our corporate social responsibility programme - they loved the TV ad!' This particular aspect can be really challenging in a world where many share the view that you can only invest in what you can measure. A view which can lead to brands initiating conversations about unique selling points, product extensions or category insights which for the general public carry all the allure of an invitation to an internal brand positioning meeting. In reality, sometimes the best way to join a conversation isn’t to actually say anything at all but simply to help others speak and interact with one another - but that doesn't fit very well in a KPI.
Finally, there is the additional dimension of how a brand approaches and deals with people beyond an initial conversation and into more meaningful interaction with their online identities. This aspect is - maybe - the one going through the greatest transformation currently as people’s online identities become an increasingly important part of their overall personas. Which means there's more scope for brands to take that initial conversation with consumers (aka people) further. However, there's also means there's more opportunity for them to get it horribly wrong - both at a micro and a macro level.
The Conversation Grows
Not that long ago I used to have conversations with marketing executives about whether social networks were just a fad, or not. No one talks about that today. The global conversation looks set to become bigger, more influential and more sophisticated which means it’s likely to maintain its allure for brands. However, whether people are listening to brands or care about what they say is maybe the real question - and the real challenge.
Want To Know More...?
One of the digital strategy sessions I run for clients looks at some of the issues involved for brands wanting to join the global conversation. It's usually a provocative subject and there’s no shortage of thorny issues that arise. The session is called ‘Brand Conversations – Is Anyone Listening? (And If So Do They Care?)’ and I’m doing one for the IPA on November 9th as part of its CPD programme. If the ever-changing swirl of the global conversation and networked media is of interest to you, then sign-up and come along. Alternatively, drop me a line and we can organise a bespoke session for you and your team.