Young, relatively wealthy users and the concept of “free” have made social media channels popular hunting grounds for marketing pros all over the world. Most of them are still struggling to get it right.
We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet!” says the actor playing Sean Parker, one of the Facebook pioneers in the recent blockbuster movie The Social Network.
In spring 2007, less than four years ago, Facebook celebrated a milestone: 30 million unique members.
Today, Facebook has 550 million unique members and adds 700,000 new members each day.
Membership in all the various social media networks is predicted to pass the 1 billion mark this year, making the digital social domain the third largest population in the world after China and India.
Other social media channels such as YouTube, Gowalla, Twitter and collaborative projects like Wikipedia have become global household names, generating millions of visitors and billions of hours spent in front the computer or, increasingly, with smartphones or other mobile broadband devices.
The share numbers and multitude of channels can be dizzying. According to social media project Wikipedia, a common definition for social media is “a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.”
For many corporate communication professionals, spin doctors and modern-day Don Draper (the main character in the television series Mad Men) admen, the emergence of social media has tipped the balance of power in the communication and marketing process. It has moved from a one-way affair that hammers slogans through dominating and far-reaching channels to communicating in an increasingly fragmented environment where the target group has a tendency to talk back to big corporations. And they are not always polite.
Others are less enthusiastic about the quality of the billion megabytes of content created by enthusiastic users.
“Out of this anarchy, it suddenly became clear that what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated,” writes Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur. “Under these rules, the only way to intellectually prevail is by infinite filibustering.”
This anarchy is one reason why the corporate world has been wary of embracing social media. But still, companies are testing the waters. In a brave move, American carmaker General Motors launched a campaign for Chevy Tahoe where it invited users to create their own ads and put them on YouTube.
The result was a number of videos mocking the gas-guzzling SUV as a climate threat.
Although the campaign is routinely used as a schoolbook example of the hazards of leaving a valuable brand in the hands of unpredictable consumers, the jury is still out on whether it was a failure or a success.
One of the golden rules of social media is that it is better to create a buzz than to be bland and unnoticed.
But the lingering hesitancy of marketing departments is reflected in the numbers for ad money spent on social media, according to a recent report from Deloitte Canada. Despite social media’s large and growing audience, its advertising revenues still represent less than 1 percent of the total worldwide advertising expenditure.
Although a multitude of digital native consultants and professional bloggers are encouraging corporations to embrace the new digital opportun-ities (for a fee), the dinosaur medium of TV is still predicted to keep its position as the first choice in marketing.
In many cases, it might be a wise decision. People logged into social-networking sites are there to hang out with their friends, so they pay little attention to ads. They want to interact with people, not brands.
“We spend the majority of our time engaging with people on these networks, not advertising on them,” says Scott Monty, the head of Ford’s social-media activities.
The automotive company has been increasingly savvy in applying the special rules of social media as demonstrated by the launch of the European-made Ford Fiesta in America. Ford imported European Fiestas and recruited 100 media-savvy members of the public to act as “agents”. In return for a free car for six months plus insurance and petrol, they agreed to upload their adventures in online videos and to blog about them. Called the “Fiesta Movement”, it created a buzz, and the car gained the highest vehicle awareness among the public of any car in its segment.
“You can give people something to talk with each other about, add value to their social interactions while integrating your brand or product,” says
Petter Westlund, creative director for digital production company B-reel in New York, recently dubbed No. 1 in digital productions by trade magazine Advertising Age, with ample experience in social media marketing. “Social media can give you a better understanding of what people are talking about in areas that relate to your company or product. This can create great opportunities to be reactive, picking up on developing trends and attitudes. But there are plenty of examples of brands over-estimating people’s interest in them.”
And although marketing in social media has travelled a long way from the golden age of marketing in the ’60s Madison Avenue, Don Draper would nod approvingly to the core value, as stated by Westlund.
“Good and big ideas are still the key to success,” Westlund says. “Social Media, if orchestrated properly, and with a bit of luck, can create a powerful word-of-mouth ‘amplification mechanism’.”
Some good advice:
1. Get to know your target audience by spending time with them.
2. Put time and effort into developing your storytelling. Good stories are the key to success.
3. Although most digital channels are free, serious social media inter-actions take a lot of time for your organization. Make sure you have the resources, endurance and decision power to sustain the effort.
4. Successful social media investments are founded on transparency. Is your organization ready to talk to your loudest and most well-informed critics? If not, don’t do it!