The Social Network: A little more conversation, a little less branding
At present, the two main social media platforms are Facebook and Twitter, although the popularity of different platforms waxes and wanes as new social networks are launching all the time. In 2011 alone, four new social networks came on stream: Pinterest, Google+, Wellwer, and Faces.com. Participants in these networks share links, stories, recommendations, and show off their own creativity with what is generically known as User Generated Content (UGC).
This matters for your brand for two reasons: firstly, participants in these social networks discuss their brand experiences – both good and bad – with friends in their network. Secondly, social networks are an excellent channel for that most valuable promotional tool: the word-of-mouth recommendation. Several larger brands are already starting to steer the conversations in social networks their way. The Body Shop and Nike are among many brands that have Facebook pages.
Nike focuses on creating “shareable content” for their followers to reshare on their own Facebook pages. The brand’s own Facebook page contains high-quality photographs from events that they sponsor, like the music festival SXSW, and Nike-badged team mascot pictures. Nike’s “fans” on Facebook then repost these pictures on their own pages – either to show that they were at a popular event, or to show allegiance to a team – and the Nike brand is shared with that person’s social network as a result. Each Facebook user has on average around 350 friends so whenever 200 people share a picture, 70,000 copies of the Nike logo appear on people’s screens. Not only that, the Nike brand is tacitly endorsed by each person that shares it: that’s brand exposure that can’t be bought.
The cosmetic and skincare company, Body Shop, uses its Facebook channel to highlight the causes it supports. The core ethos of the Body Shop brand is its commitment to certain values: they were one of the pioneers of the “Beauty without Cruelty” movement, and they now embrace messages of empowerment for women across the world. As such, their Facebook presence focuses on sharing news of their charitable and campaigning work. The brand’s followers then share this news with their like-minded friends, which results in a high-impact, word-of-mouth campaign that is built around a set of shared values. Again, this is the kind of exposure money can’t buy.
Valuable lessons from nimble brands
Smaller brands like ThinkGeek and Teapigs are taking to Twitter as a low-investment, high-impact social network. ThinkGeek started using Twitter in 2008, Teapigs in 2010, but it took a while for them to realise the full benefit of using these networks.
“We set up an account in early 2008, but it wasn’t until the end of 2008 that we started using it for something more than a [news] feed,” says Carrie Gouldin of Think Geek. “We were using Twitter as individuals since early on, so it just made sense: if our customers are there, too, why wouldn’t we want to talk with them?”
Hannah from Teapigs agrees that conversation is the most important part of the Twitter experience: “We started using [Twitter] properly in mid-2010. We’d always had a page because ‘it was the thing to do’ but only got to grips with it then as a media channel around this time. We use it as a platform to ‘chat’ to our customers in the same way we would at a show or face to face. We tweet things we think are interesting, different, important and also answer any questions people have.”
This is a theme that both Hannah and Carrie expand on: the importance of using Twitter as a channel for conversations, rather than as a traditional advertising medium.
“We’ve never really looked at it as a way of acquiring new customers, so that keeps it fun for both us and our followers. Nobody wants to be marketed at,” Carrie told Global Business Magazine. “I’d like to think it’s 50/50 [talking and listening], y’know, like an actual conversation… We read every tweet that mentions “ThinkGeek,” even if it’s not an @-mention, and reply to everything that needs a response. Sometimes it’s just to say happy birthday, sometimes it’s to fix a botched order. Unfortunately, we can’t read every tweet that our followers tweet – that stream looks like blur in real-time.
Incredibly, despite the sheer volume of communication, it’s Carrie who does almost all of the tweeting: “We have backup tweeters and share the load around holidays [but] it’s really mostly one person – myself…” Carrie explains that it’s easier to track customer service issues this way. She also says that this “helps to solve the voice question that comes up in brand marketing,” although she pulls a face as she says that.
And that distaste for the language of branding: conversion rates, lifetime earning potential and the like, is what seems to underpin the success of ThinkGeek’s social network. “[Half of our Twitter stream] is pure entertainment – and that’s us tweeting geeky dates in history, videos, news articles, that kind of thing. We just try to make our followers happy in whatever way we can.”
One of the things that makes the ThinkGeek Twitter account so compelling is the fact that Carrie and her colleagues evidently swim in the same sea of pop- and geek-culture references as the ThinkGeek customer base. The Twitter feed shows hundreds of on-going conversations about Doctor Who, Star Trek, videogames and science, and the customers’ enthusiasm for all things geeky is authentically reflected on the ThinkGeek account.
The most important lessons to be learned from ThinkGeek and Teapigs’ experiences on Twitter is that authenticity wins over deliberate branding exercises every time.
“[You have to] keep things short and sweet, getting your message across in just 140 characters is a real talent!” Hannah laughs. “From our point of view, [Teapigs’ Twitter account] allows us to stay connected with our customers and work out who they are and what they like. It’s important that we have a proper relationship with them and listen to what they say. It’s also a chance to have a bit of fun and a place where people can engage with our brand,” she concludes.
Social media disasters
Not everyone manages such resounding success on social media, however. There have been some high-profile disasters in recent months where branded Twitter accounts have been hijacked by bitter (soon-to-be-ex) employees, been used to broadcast personal messages by mistake, or been subject to the kind of colossal insensitivity that can render a brand toxic in minutes.
International design studio, Marc Jacobs, suffered from a very public meltdown by one of their interns in March last year. The unnamed intern to CEO Robert Duffy was charged with posting to the @markjacobsintl Twitter feed. Perhaps he should have been relieved of his duties after posting ‘I was asked to do this until we found a replacement… I hate this job… Robert is so picky! We have presented him with 50 people. He’s not happy.’ But the intern was left to soldier on until his last day when he tweeted from the brand’s account, “You guys and gals have no idea how difficult Robert is. I am only an intern. My last day is tomorrow. I wouldn’t be tweeting this if not..! Good luck! I pray for you all. If you get the job.”
The intern had only been responsible for the Twitter feed for six weeks after Mr Duffy surrendered the responsibility due to his own PR calamity. “’Any ideas for a stage set for our fashion show? It’s at the armory on 27th Street. I’m stuck. No idea. Something minimal please? I have one week!” tweeted Duffy, causing gasps of outrage about his lack of preparedness for this major event in the fashion calendar.
Chrysler alienated an entire city when one of their social media consultants, Scott Bartosiewicz, tweeted the following from the @ChryslerAutos account: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f****** drive.” Scott says that he meant to tweet it from his own account and didn’t notice that he was still signed in with the Chrysler corporate Twitter handle. Scott lost his job, and his agency – New Media Strategies – lost Chrysler’s account.
A similar event at the American Red Cross was handled with humour and aplomb, however. When employee “Ryan” sent a tweet from the wrong account that read “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd” the organisation immediately followed up with “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated keys.” Ryan also commented: “Rogue tweet from @RedCross due to my inability to use hootsuite…I wasn’t actually #gettingslizzard but just excited! #nowembarassing.”
The light-hearted response generated a lot of goodwill for the Red Cross, and the number of people retweeting the original tweets guaranteed the right kind of mass exposure. In addition, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery called for their customers to support the Red Cross in a similarly light-hearted tone: “Please join Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in raising money for the American Red Cross… Note: Alcohol can often make you more dehydrated. Dogfish Head recommends not drinking immediately before or after donating [blood]!” Both organisations came away from the incident with a stronger brand image.
One of Twitter’s unique selling points is the ability to way in which Twitter users respond to current affairs (see “Trending Topics” in the glossary). Several brands have fallen foul of their attempts to link themselves to trending topics without fully understanding the details of the event in question. Fashion designer Kenneth Cole responded to news of the Arab Spring with what must have seemed, to him, to be a little timely publicity: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online… -KC”
Within seconds, that tweet appeared in the feeds of Twitter users who were watching the horrors unfold in Cairo. Within minutes, the Kenneth Cole brand had become a trending topic, and not for the right reasons. Kenneth Cole deleted the original tweet and responded on his Facebook account:
“I have spent a considerable amount of time reading your comments, and value your insights and feedback. I want to reiterate that my use of levity with regard to this momentous event was extremely inappropriate. My thoughts are with the courageous people of Egypt. -KC” But it was too late – on Twitter, the Kenneth Cole brand was tainted by the ill-thought-out message.
Taking your first steps in social marketing
To many users, social networks feel more private than even email despite their open nature. Perhaps this stems from the conversational nature of the interactions. People tend to restrict their social networks to friends, family, and a few selected others: whether you like it or not, people won’t invite you in to your social network if they feel that you don’t share their values, or that you don’t have something of interest to offer. Here are a few ground rules.
Be authentic – never espouse a set of values that you aren’t prepared to operate by. Your followers will compare what you say with how you behave, and if they discover your hypocrisy they will disseminate the news of their disappointment through their networks faster than you can say “damage limitation exercise.”
Don’t spam – social networks are not like broadcast media. When someone adds you to their Twitter “follows” or when they “like” you on Facebook they are, in effect, inviting you to join a conversation. Be respectful of boundaries and only make contributions that the audience will value. What might be acceptable in advertising but irritating via email becomes positively obnoxious on social networks.
Apologise when you slip up – social networks are very public forums and deleted tweets never go away. You can guarantee that if you make a mistake on Facebook or Twitter, someone will have a screen-shot of it. Own up to your mistakes and put them right gracefully and with good humour.
Join the conversation – don’t treat social networks as broadcast media. Social networks still lack the reach of traditional broadcast networks, and you will never exercise the control over social media that you do over advertising on broadcast media. However, social networks offer something that other channels don’t have: the chance of a two way conversation. Treated right, social networks can be a valuable source of information about who your customers are and what they think.
Marketing via social networking requires a significant change in mind set from traditional marketing activities, but it also offers benefits that can’t be found elsewhere. Start with a personal account of your own to get a feel for the way social networks operate, and see where the conversation takes you.