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The Future of Social Media for Brands

The Future of Social Media for Brands

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Published by Ashok Lalla
This was an article I wrote for a special issue on Social Media of 'Thinking Aloud' -- the magazine of the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)
This was an article I wrote for a special issue on Social Media of 'Thinking Aloud' -- the magazine of the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)

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Published by: Ashok Lalla on Aug 14, 2011
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The Future of Social Media for Brands

Through the eyes of a marketer who sees the foundations of success starting with A,B, C… In a world where Social Media has freed the reins of expression and hugely democratized it and technology and mobility has put the power to express with a click of millions and millions of people, a question topmost in the minds of marketers is how they can ensure the success of their brands. In the new Digital-dominated economic order. This challenge is just as applicable to India as it is to the rest of the region, and elsewhere in the world too. Rather than be prescriptive about what marketers ought to do, I will share what’s really an amalgam of my observations as a brand builder and digital marketer – of practices and ideas that have worked. And some new ones that I feel can make a marked difference to the fortunes of brands in the coming year, and beyond. Since a defining feature of our times is brevity, I’ve tried to capture these ideas in little vignettes, going all the way from A to Z…

Today, brands are no longer defined by the ads they create, but by the ‘performance’ they put out. To an audience that is sometimes passive, sometimes vocal, sometimes a participant, often a critic and at times a supporter. And yes, hopefully, a customer too. This new interaction dynamic makes it imperative for brands to script their tales to entertain, engage, educate, enthuse… before they can sell. And think ‘audience’ before ‘consumer’.

The new marketing order dictates that marketers wake up to a new reality: That their brand is no longer about what they tell their consumers it is. But is in fact what consumers tell each other it is. The power to define a brand has shifted away from the brand owner. To the brand’s consumer. Rather than an ad telling the brand story and shaping opinions, it’s the consumer review that speaks louder and resonates with other consumers.

Community | Content | Context
Yes, for any marketer, these C’s (and often several more like Conversation, Causes, Contests, Coolness…) define the heart and soul of Social Media marketing – all done to influence the

most important C, the Consumer. With the ultimate aim being to turn her into the brand’s Champion, to spread the word further… to their networks and beyond. This whole article could focus on the C’s but since there’s more to the Future of Social Media for Brands than the C’s, I will conclude C by saying: Start where your consumers are, participate in their context, create conversations through content that you provide and co-create with your audience; keep it relevant to the personality of the brand. And you may well find a brand community forming. And perhaps even a brand cult.

This is where the science of Marketing meets the art of Social Media. Where the intangibles like conversation and engagement meet conversion and commerce. It is however important to select the right measures – be they delivery metrics, participation metrics or transaction metrics. And also to recognize that not all measures of Social Media success can be determined from Social Media itself, but often require conventional offline brand track measures to correlate against.

I stayed away from the temptation of going with the most commonly used term in Social Media – Engagement. For a reason. Engagement is no doubt crucial. But the first step towards creating engagement is Expression. What a brand says and the manner in which it says it. Brands communicate via ads. In social media, they need to express. Their stories. Their personality. The emotions that define them. To enliven the way their audience sees them. And eventually engage them.

I say it often and it’s worth repeating yet again: Social Media is free, but Social Media marketing is not. Right from designing and creating the right Social expression for a brand, to managing its presence and participation in Social streams to preserving and enhancing its image and influence takes effort. And time. And these call for investments. Who was it that famously said: ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’? He might as well have been speaking about Social Media marketing.

A brand’s Social media outreach to its audience is dependent on their ability to find the brand when they go looking – not for just the brand, but for whatever matters to them (around the

context of the brand). Google, being the 800 pound gorilla of Search is where a brand must show up – via a focus on content and asset distribution and optimization. A little technical sounding perhaps, but then there is a science behind the effort needed to win favour with Google’s complex algorithms. And reach audiences.

Home page
Smart marketers realize that to reach and influence their audience via Social Media they need to be where their audience is, by making Social Media outposts their home. Rather than create a single brand destination and hope that the world will beat a path to it. So a brand’s videos should find home on YouTube, its real world stores a home on Google Maps and so on.

The first step to creating engagement is interaction. Between the brand and its audience. And between members of its audience around the context of the brand. Social Media by its very design is a multi-way, interaction medium. Unlike conventional communication media that are linear in nature. However, to create interaction with its brand, marketers need to focus on providing the right stimulus. Through what they say and how they say it. To invite and stimulate interaction.

Joining hands
Social is about groups. And groups allow for sharing ideas. Collaboration. Co-creation. The wisdom of many often outshines the ability of one. Brands should tap this quality of Social. To learn. To become better. To create something new. However, overusing the group (and Crowdsourcing) aspect of Social can turn off the audience. And make them a-social to the brand. Something to guard against.

The newest buzzword in Social Media – Klout or a means of measuring Social media influence of people. And of brands. A complex algorithm determines a brand’s Klout (several other metrics exist too to measure clout). But at the end of the day, what counts is not an influence score. But the real influence a brand wields – in the mind of its audience, something a score may not fully measure. Then there’s the ultimate measure of influence – the power to move a brand off the shelves i.e. sales. Striking the right balance between measures, and not getting blinded by achieving a score is crucial.

Life beyond the Like
At times, one feels Likes are the Social Media equivalent of Hits, that misleading metric that measured website success in the early days of the Internet. What really is important for a brand is what happens after a Like. Simply getting your audience to Like a page to see a promotional offer is just that. Promotional and tactical. And myopic. Focusing on nurturing the Likes instead to cultivate brand love is what marketers should pursue.

Too many marketers are guilty of approaching Social Media like yet another media channel, and developing a plan around delivering impressions (opportunity to see), frequency (of the impressions) and reach (by using as many sites as possible). And then using advertising to stimulate action by their audience. Forgetting in the bargain that the most important media in Social Media is your audience. Not the sites they may be on. Question for marketers to ask themselves: ‘Is my audience in my media plan?’

Social Media marketing is a commitment. That needs to outlive the life of a campaign. And carry on. And evolve as it goes along. After all, one would not abruptly end a social relationship one builds offline, without running the risk of being seen as rude. The price of doing so in Social Media can go way beyond the investment in dollars one has made. It can include a loss of goodwill and even trigger a negative chain of opinions about a brand.

On 24x7
Social Media is always on. It does not shut down at 5 p.m. on Friday. Or take weekends off. Or go on vacation. If anything, it gets busier after ‘work’. Marketers must recognize this and orient themselves to be there when their audience is. And stay receptive and responsive. 24x7x365.

Peer to Peer
This is one of the defining characteristics of Social Media. The space is about the participants and the interactions they have among themselves. It’s not about brands. Smart marketers recognize this and work to integrate their brands into this peer-to-peer environment, and become one with the audience. Rather than behave like an outsider who has gate crashed someone else’s party.

Quality over Quantity
It’s not how much you say that makes an impression on people, but what you say that counts. Choose your words carefully and choose to say things that matter to your audience, rather than to yourself as a brand. Simply flooding timelines and dominating share of voice is a poor way to win share of heart. Less is more.

Real & authentic
The Social Media marketing that works is not a stage managed programme. But one where the audience gets to see and experience the believable side of the brand. Its real soul and its authentic being. Social Media allows a brand to come alive and don a human face. It is important to ensure that face is real.

Social is about being Social
I never tire of saying it: Social Media Marketing is not about the Media or about Marketing. It is about being Social. Be Social, and the media and the marketing will take care of themselves. It’s important to be Social, and not merely do Social (by creating a Fan page, putting videos on YouTube, or tweeting)

Touch over Tech
While technology plays an important part in powering and sustaining Social networks, what really drives the heartbeats of participants in the Social stream is touch. And a brand that is able to imbue its Social media presence with high touch that connects beyond the click on the Like button, and endears itself to its audience is well on its way to attaining Social success.

The ‘you’ here is not the brand. But its audience. Social Media is not about ‘me the brand’ but about recognizing, sharing and celebrating the audience. One at a time. And altogether. Done well, this will help a brand be invited into its audience’s world. Hearts. And wallets.

No article on Social Media is complete without making reference to what seems to have become a marketer’s mantra: “Let’s do a viral”. Just as it is impossible to catch a cold by simply trying to catch one, it’s impossible to ‘do a viral’. Virals happen. From a marketing perspective,

when a brand’s audience picks up on a message stream and likes it enough to share by spreading it (like a viral) to their networks. From where the ripple effect takes it further and further.

Whatever Whenever Wherever
This is the new WWW that is pertinent to Social Media. It is no longer enough to create a brand destination and then drive traffic to it. But instead, it’s important to create many islands of the brand. In whatever form the audience wants. To be there when they want it. And be there where they are. This is where Social Media applications play a role. As do mobile technologies. And location-based services. So that at the end of the day, a brand not just reaches its audience. But touches it. By making it ever easier for its audience to embrace it.

X factor
This is what makes Social Media marketing exciting to the committed. Unpredictable to the unprepared. And exhilarating and rewarding to those who realize its true potential. Stay the course with Social Media. And you may well discover your brand’s X factor. Sooner than you expected.

Gen Y. Millennials. Digital natives. Call them what you will, but this a very important constituency for almost all marketers. Since they are tomorrow’s buyers. And today’s influencers. For virtually every product category. It is important to understand their aspirations, their attitudes and socialize your brand in their context. In their world. In Social Media.

Z usually signifies the end of the alphabet. But when it comes to Social Media marketing, there is no end. Every end is in fact a new beginning. In the pursuit of reaching a brand’s audience. And winning their hearts. By being more than a brand. By being Social. The Social Media ecosystem is like a kaleidoscope – that forms myriad patterns every time one looks at it. Likewise what constitutes the A, B, Cs of success for brands via Social Media will keep changing too. That’s what makes this space so exciting. And keeps marketers up at night. To stay in step with their audience. And a step ahead of their competition.
This article first appeared in ‘Thinking Aloud’, the magazine of the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). You can read it online at http://bit.ly/pqSvvO

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