Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have attracted hundreds of millions of members. As a result the interplay between consumers and brands is undergoing a shift, not to mention the relationship between Governments and their citizens. While ‘how’ stakeholders engage with each other has changed, the motivations behind the engagement have not. All stakeholders are seeing the digital world as a new frontier in which to influence the outcomes that they desire. The question yet to be answered is: who will benefit most from this new world?
There are lots of stories available on how consumers have been able to influence the actions of brands – how consumers have been able to harness ‘digital outrage’ at what particular brands or organisations have done by way of poor service, pricing/fees or product changes and sourcing. And we are not just talking about small brands, we are talking about back-flips from the likes of Coca-Cola, BlackBerry, FedEx and Bank of America.
Social media has provided a mechanism for creating a critical mass, providing a rallying point for disenfranchised consumers that was previously not available. However there are still too many instances of BAD profits being made by companies to suggest that the pendulum has totally swung back in favour of consumers. The Bain consulting team behind the Net Promoter research tool consider BAD profits as those earned at the expense of customer relationships. Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, profits from that customer are deemed BAD. In many instances the source of the BAD profits are hidden, but in other instances they’re blatantly obvious. Regardless, they are plentiful. In our own little world we constantly feel a sense of dismay at how four- and five-star hotels feel the need to charge you for WIFI while the local café down the road turns it on for free. Or the fact American Express charges merchants a higher fee than the bank’s credit cards and that we the customers get slugged the difference at point of sale by the retailers. Then there is the ultimate slap in the face when you book flights with your credit card and have Qantas charge you a fee per person traveling on the booking, when it is simply the one financial transaction. There are plenty more examples of the ‘screw you’ customer mentality shown by business from huge petrol price swings to the numerous banking fees. Consumers in most cases still cop it, regardless of our more informed and connected social media world.
While consumer inertia is a factor in providing brands with some safety from digital scrutiny, brand owners have also recognised that they have too much at stake to allow social media to be the domain of consumers alone. While many organisations have been slow to adapt, the problem is typically more in the context of how they respond to negative sentiment rather than how they are using the power of social media for marketing. For brands who do cop some flak online there is a need to respond quickly, be transparent and seek to pick up the dialogue offline in a personal and respectful manner, refrain from the temptation to delete negative comments that have been made, and let humility and common sense shine through. Simple as it is, many are still learning the game.
However, setting aside those who need to learn how to respond to digital fallout, we should not forget that for every one example of ‘consumer power’ being demonstrated through the use of social media, there are probably twenty fantastic examples of how brands are using social media to their own advantage. Sports drink brand Gatorade has in fact set itself the goal of becoming the largest participatory brand in the world. It has created a ‘war room’ within its marketing department to monitor the brand in real time across social media. According to a recent McKinsey Quarterly, Gatorade is regularly honing their smarts by using custom-built data visualisations and dashboards (including terms related to the brand, sponsored athletes and competitors). They are also running ‘customer sentiment’ analyses around product and campaign launches. Gatorade will even tweak their TV commercials based on feedback from their devoted online followers. Since the war room’s creation, the average traffic to Gatorade’s online properties, the length of interaction, and the viral sharing from campaigns has more than doubled.
One small food brand Truly Deeply works with has over 100,000 Facebook friends and views its community as the ears and eyes of the brand. Its Facebook friends are the first to provide feedback on flavour and profile tweaks and have been responsible for championing the brand into distribution channels that were previously blocked. They are viewed as an extension of the marketing department.
Big and small brands alike are ramping up their efforts to turn social media into an advantage. Social media is viewed with wonder and anticipation by those brands wishing to make their marketing budgets punch above their weight. For the passionate members of the wider community who generate digital fame through their talented blogging or social media commentary, it is brand owners who seek to leverage their influence, invite them to fashion launches, make a new model car available for them to drive, provide them with particular bottles of wine to share with their friends. Connect them to your brand in a positive and meaningful manner and let them do what they do best: influence.
Digital Influence assessment software tools such as Klout, PeerIndex and Kred, while giving these influencers marketable status, will increasingly be leveraged by brand managers to direct their overtures to the people who count. While the tools assessing true influence are still in their formative phase, and there is some healthy skepticism about their efficacy, their mere presence signals the growing focus of the marketing world on this new way of influencing.
For all brands the digital frontier in all its forms has added another layer of complexity to how brands engage. It represents the biggest revolution in brand management since traditional broadcast media became mainstream. Beyond social media, consumers are engaged with products and services across the entire digital space. But what marketers need to recognise is that it is more than a shift in media and technology formats, it is a full-on cultural shift. And it has only just begun.
David Ansett and Peter Singline
Peter Singline and David Ansett are co-founders and directors of Truly Deeply, a Melbourne based brand strategy and design consultancy.
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