Taking care in the community
It might have been dismissed as a fad by some, but the impact of social media is undeniable. Marketers need to take advantage of it before consumers take over completely, says Robert Lester.
Social media has exploded to such an extent that it would be remiss of even the most antiquated marketer not to explore the opportunities presented by the likes of Facebook, Second Life, blogs and “wikis”. New research shows that internet users are spending 12 hours a week online – an hour more than last year – with the crucial 16 to 24 age group increasingly logging on rather than watching television (European Interactive Advertising Association).
As a concept, social media is nothing new –letters pages in newspapers and radio phoneins could be classed as older forms of social media – but its latest incarnation is being driven by advances in technology. A recent report from global research consultancy Illuminas stated: “Web 2.0 translates into an online medium a range of social interactions that until now have been confined to small group situations.”
Communities, forums, noticeboards and other methods of communicating such as instant messenger were also around long before the phrase “social media” was coined. More recognisable forms of social media today are social networking or community sites (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Piczo and so on), usergenerated content sites (YouTube, DailyMotion), virtual worlds (Second Life, Habbo Hotel), photo sharing sites (Ringo and Flickr), blogs and wikis (webpages that anyone can edit, with Wikipedia being the most well known).
Director of media consultancy Elemental Communications Tim Gibbon says: “Quite simply, social media may be classed as content that is created by individuals or groups collaborating and sharing information, mainly for the Web but also for other digital media such as mobile phones. It normally takes the form of text, images, audio and video.”
But, inevitably, it is social networks that grab the vast majority of newspaper headlines. Social networking has come of age this year, with 42% of internet users across Europe visiting sites such as Facebook and MySpace on a regular basis compared with 23% in 2006. Two years ago the figure was so small it did not even register as a separate category in the annual survey by the EIAA, while a recently published Jupiter Research report shows that the UK leads the way, with almost a fifth of all internet users regularly visiting these sites.
The study also revealed that for the first time young people now use the internet more often than they watch TV. As many as 82% of 16- to 24-year-olds use the Web between five and seven days a week, while only 77% watch TV as regularly – down 5% from last year.
Head of UK marketing for Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions Alex Marks believes this presents a significant opportunity for marketers. “Advertising is a poor substitute for conversation,” he says. “It’s better for a brand to be able to talk directly to its customers and ask their opinion, and for those customers to feel that their feedback will be taken on board. A lot of brands are starting to do that through the internet. Technology is making conversations between brands and customers much easier.”
Facebook and MySpace – the world’s two biggest social networking sites – have just announced advertising strategies that they hope will enhance that interaction. Facebook’s system – “Facebook Ads” and Beacon – enables businesses to create their own pages which users can then recommend to friends and uses behavioural targeting techniques to serve ads, while MySpace is launching a platform that allows brands to target users based on the interests listed on their profile pages. Meanwhile, Google is spearheading an initiative called OpenSocial – a set of software standards that aims to open up and link a plethora of social networking sites. Some cynics have dismissed social networking as a fad, but with 250 million people around the world belonging to a social network – and 10 million in the UK – it is easy to see why most industry experts believe it will be around, in one form or another, for many years to come. Marks adds: “Social networks – and social media as a whole – have hit upon something quite deep within human behaviour; the need to connect, share and self-express – and that’s not going to go away.”
But, while few are in doubt about the long term future of social media, not everyone is convinced that users of social networks will welcome the increasing number of commercial messages on sites. European managing director of teen social network Piczo Chris Seth acknowledges that sites must get the balance right: “We are very aware that our brand is in many ways owned by the users who created it. We have to keep giving them what they want and if we do something they don’t like we re-evaluate that very quickly. But 95% of the things we create are positively received.”
He adds: “Teens like playing around with content from brands such as Nintendo. They look at it as content rather than advertising. But we need to make sure it’s not getting in the way of what we want to do.”
Seth points out that brands wanting to work with Piczo must provide relevant content so they do not alienate users. He says that as long as there is a “value exchange”, both consumers and brands can benefit. “People come to Piczo because they want to create things – it’s a place for self expression and for connecting,” adds Seth. “The self expression part is very important and if marketers can understand that by giving our members something new and different that enhances their visit to Piczo, then they can then employ our members to help them do the job they have to do.”
That view is supported by Bebo director of international sales Mark Charkin, who points to a Vera Wang-branded profile page on Bebo that offers one user a month the chance to be “pampered like a princess” for a day. “It’s about brands creating a long-term dialogue with consumers – beyond a campaign-by-campaign basis,” he says. “Brands can develop deeper relationships with the consumer and that’s very exciting.”
Announcing Facebook’s ad strategy, the site’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said peer recommendation was the “Holy Grail of advertising”. He added: “For the last 100 years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be part of the conversation.”
Yet, not everyone believes that ceding so much control over their marketing to internet users will sit easily with companies. Managing partner at Experian Integrated Marketing Steve Davies says: “Social media puts the promotional role within the hands of the consumer themselves. That’s difficult for brands that are used to controlling their own brand message. Letting customers do that is quite a step for them.”
Bob Ivins, managing director and executive vicepresident of online research company Com- Score, agrees, adding: “Every brand needs to be relevant and part of a community. They need to open a dialogue with their consumers, but they also need to be prepared for what could be negative feedback and I don’t think all marketers are ready for that.”
The key to using social media effectively, believe many, is ensuring that it is fully integrated into the marketing mix. Procter & Gamble’s corporate marketing director Roisin Donnelly claimed at IAB Engage 2007 recently that integration was the biggest single challenge facing UK brand owners. She called on advertisers to recognise that the digital consumer is not a “new or different species” and added: “Online people are exactly the same as offline people. Internet users still spend time watching television, reading newspapers and sending each other text messages.”
Experian’s Davies adds: “Social media is an excellent information service and allows you to be more targeted in terms of your advertising. The key thing is that business shouldn’t just jump in with both feet – they need to understand social media and integrate it into their overall marketing strategy. Too many look at it separately.”
Although it is now widely acknowledged that social media is a marketing channel with enormous potential, some argue that it is more effective for brands targeting young people. A recent Ofcom study into UK internet use among people aged 15 and above showed that 55% of 15- to 24-year-olds visit social media sites at least once a week, but that in the 55-plus category it is only 12%.
“Marketers are getting very excited about social media, but if you look at who is actually using it and for how long it doesn’t really bear out the amount of hype it’s getting,” says director of digital strategy at digital management consultancy Generator Jon Wade. “For 16- to 24-year-olds, there are not many other ways of engaging with them so it’s particularly important for brands targeting them. Our advice is to watch the sector closely, but if your brand is not targeting young people then don’t jump on the bandwagon. We think most marketers need to get their Web 1.0 right before thinking about Web 2.0.”
Yet others feel that, with the rise of sites like Saga Zone, social media can work for brands right across the spectrum. Davies points out that so-called “silver surfers” are likely to be more brand loyal and adds: “It’s potentially easier if you’re targeting older consumers. The MySpace generation can be quite fickle but older people are much stronger brand advocates. If you can win over the older generation you will have much stickier customers.”
An opportunity for all
Head of social media at search conversion agency Tamar Henry Ellis agrees that less dynamic brands should not be put off using social media. “It’s definitely easier for younger, cooler brands to market in this way,” he says. “People are much more likely to want to be a friend of Pepsi than Direct Line. It’s a lot harder for the less glamorous brands to interact but no less important.”
Bebo’s Charkin warns marketers not to be too “salesy”, saying users are likely to react negatively, while head of UK sales at MySpace Nick Reid thinks brands need to have a slightly different mindset when using social media. “The industry as a whole has let itself down in the past because it’s always been driven by accountability and return on investment” he says. “It’s about moving marketers away from that and getting them to understand how consumers engage. We have a lot of information and a great understanding of what consumers are doing.” Providing it is used correctly, it is clear that social media is now a crucial part of the marketing mix and must play a key role in almost every marketers’ strategy. Davies adds: “The marketing mix needs to grow up and meet the Web 2.0 challenge. Social media is not a fad – it’s here to stay.”