Getting the measure of online peer-to-peer communication

The internet and social networks may have opened up new channels for buzz marketers, but they must play by the first rule of marketing

Last week, Google was mentioned on 11,622 UK websites, compared to just 11 who mentioned Persil. Does what people are saying about Google online significantly affect its fortunes? Does the fact that people find Google a thousand times more interesting than Persil matter for Persil? What exactly are marketers to make of the phenomenon of online peer-to-peer communication? In the early days of the internet it was feasible for companies to track what people were saying about them online by employing human beings to visit websites, read and take notes. But the internet’s explosion has made this impossible, hence the arrival of new, automated services such as Brandwatch, whose spiders crawl the Net every few hours to track new postings across thousands of sites. Thanks to nifty bits of machine learning, Brandwatch claims to be able to filter out the spam and understand the sentiment of what is being said.

Its data underlines how much we’ve still got to learn about Web 2.0. It’s quite clear, for example, that some brands loom much larger online than others. Last week, Google was beaten by Microsoft, which garnered over 13,000 mentions. Other much talked about brands included Apple (9442), eBay (5993) and the BBC (5656). Hi-tech/entertainment brands such as Sony and Nokia also wracked up more than 1,000 mentions along with upmarket car marques such as BMW, Porsche, Mercedes and Jaguar.

Other brands hardly merited a mention, however. While Persil mustered 11 comments, Andrex achieved eight, Fairy 14, Domestos four. Pampers did a little better at 32, with Heinz at 65. If online buzz was a measure of brand strength, these brands would be seven stone weaklings, but does it actually matter? In fact, while poor buzz ratings may not do much for a brand manager’s ego, as far as real life goes it’s probably far better to play an almost unnoticed taken-for-granted role in people’s everyday lives than to be a much talked about marginal player.

The obvious conclusion is that social media is far more important for some brands than for others. The less obvious implication is that we have very little understanding of what this actually means.

Does the current profile of brand buzz merely reflect the interests and demographics of who is doing the talking? (While the internet itself is now mainstream, social media is still strongly skewed to younger age groups and geeks.) Or are some brands inherently more buzzable than others? It probably isn’t surprising that hi-tech and entertainment brands generate more comment than chore brands such as Domestos. But what about the nuances and subtleties? Is Cadbury (with 168 mentions last week) right to embrace social media so strongly, for example (its celebrated revival of Wispa is just one example of a much broader initiative)? Are indulgence or luxury brands inherently more interesting than utility brands? If so, Harrods (77 mentions), Dom Perignon (38) and Moet & Chandon (two) may have something to worry about.

Before we worry too much about such numbers however, we need to ask ourselves how new this phenomenon really is. Consumers have talked to each other about products since the year dot. Word of mouth recommendation has been the most important influence on consumer choices since marketing began. We just ignored it because we couldn’t measure it or influence it. It was like the invisible, intangible rabbit sitting on your shoulder. Whatever you did, you couldn’t get rid of it and it didn’t really seem to affect things much, so it didn’t matter.

So is social media simply making the previously invisible visible and measurable, with little significant change to the substance? Or is it dramatically changing the dynamics of communication in our society? When it comes to people talking about brands, my guess is that it’s a bit of both. In reality, most blogs and most forum postings are read by tiny handfuls of people. They reach little further than a chance conversation in the office. However, every now and again, a bit of news or comment goes ballistic, eventually (for example) being picked up by traditional news sources. This sometimes happened before the internet but social media probably lowers the threshold for such take-offs. Nevertheless, proportionately speaking, they are still few and far between. The vast majority of online commentary is all but ignored. Hence the trendy Silicon Valley T-shirt, which reads Psst! Viral marketing doesn’t work. Pass it on! The dream of word of mouth marketing is that marketers influence the key influencers (at very low cost) and then let these influencers influence everybody else (free). Two cold showers await these dreamers. First, the picture of influence painted by people like Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point turns out to be simplistic. As network theorists such as Yahoo!’s Duncan Watts have shown, most real social networks don’t pass through a few centralised hubs. They work in a much more distributed way. “If you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart,” warns Watts.

Negative comment

Second, the sad news is that when it comes to major brands, most online comment is negative. With a maximum possible “pro” score of ten on Brandwatch’s figures (versus “antis” of minus ten), last week two brands scored a positive 1.2 – Sky and Cadbury. PlayStation, BMW and Porsche scored a positive 0.8 but a host of brands including Fairy, Smirnoff, Pepsi, Starbucks, British Airways, Persil, eBay and Apple (yes, Apple) were slagged off. AOL broadband won slightly positive sentiment, but the scores for all other broadband providers was negative, as they were for mobile phone and financial service brands. If a brand is not making good news for itself through active innovation, consumer attention switches to things like customer service where they are usually disappointed, suggests Brandwatch chief Giles Palmer. “Boring brands get negative press,” he says.

More fundamentally the eyeball/persuasion mindset of traditional media-driven marketing may be the perfect way of not seeing some of the most important transformations now under way. The old media mindset taught us that raising awareness and influencing decisions are one and the same thing because they are inextricably entwined in the same advertisement. It also taught us that the process of influencing happens through channels that marketers control.

Like the blind men and the elephant, however, the internet is many different things depending on which part you happen to touch. In some important parts right now, raising brand awareness and influencing choices are separating into different functions served by different channels.

Money saving tips

Take MoneySavingExpert.com. When it comes to influencing UK consumer choices, this is probably the most powerful site on the Net right now. With nearly 5 million unique visitors a month – 2.2 million of them subscribing to its weekly money saving tips newsletter – MoneySavingExpert’s forums routinely come top of Brandwatch’s list of top sources of brand comment. “It is absolutely massive,” says Palmer. “Until I looked at our data, I didn’t quite know how big it is.”

The thing about MoneySavingExpert, however, is that it is a marketing free zone. Fiercely committed to providing independent, impartial advice to consumers, it refuses all advertising. Consumers actually go there positively wanting to be influenced – they are looking for help in making a choice. But they go there precisely because its content is not influenced by marketing. With MoneySavingExpert consumers are flocking to where they see value/ help in making better decisions. The “change consumer attitudes and behaviours in our favour” mindset of old media marketing ignores this need however. In doing so, it ignores the first rule of marketing – identify and meet your customer’s needs – thereby leaving the market wide open for new entrants.

Yes, we have a lot to learn from online social media. But to learn the right lessons, we have to ask the right questions.

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