Leaders of the revolution in social media

The world of social media is a tricky one for brands to navigate. But new research suggests marketers are at the forefront of the evolution of the space as a promotional tool. Joe Fernandez reports

Nearly three-quarters of all business-to-business blogs are about creative industries or marketing, according to new research from the Social Media Library. Just under half (42%) are about marketing alone, with public relations and media forming part of this.

Companies now have multiple ways to get across their messages to consumers online, including not only blogs but podcasts, social networks and forums.

The research also suggests that take-up of social media has increased substantially in 2009. Micro-blogging site Twitter says it has seen use skyrocket in the UK, with user numbers soaring by 1,689% to 1.78 million in February 2009, compared to just 100,000 users 12 months earlier.

Graham Lee, director at the Social Media Library, says: “The social media landscape is continuing to grow in new and exciting ways. More people are blogging than ever before, expressing their opinions in vocal ways that were formerly restricted to hearsay.

“The challenge for PRs and marketers now is to identify the key influential users in these groups and find ways of working with them in relevant ways to enhance brand synergy.”

Twitter’s “follower” system, where people can choose to follow 140-character messages by certain people or companies has helped show how brands can successfully interact with people in social media environments. The BBC has more than 320,000 followers and Sony PlayStation has almost 15,000. In the US, actor Ashton Kutcher challenged news network CNN to a popularity contest on Twitter, with a race to get 1 million followers.

Lee continues: “Twitter has helped to push social media on to marketing agendas. Its use in the UK is actually higher than in the US because of people’s fondness for keeping things short and simple, as is the case with text messages. Brands and celebrities have already proved its appeal to users, and with education they could do so much more with the technology.”

Despite this apparent corporate use of the network, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone claims that advertising is “not a good business model” for the microblogging website. He may change his mind in time, however, as the Social Media Library research shows that blogging has become mass-market entertainment for UK consumers.

The largest group of blogs (38%) are those focusing on consumer issues, such as celebrities, fashion or shopping. This is followed by those focusing on technology (25%) and business-to-business at 15%.

Since the consumer issues covered by blogs often hang off news involving brands – for example, entertainment blogs tend to cover ads such as the Beckhams’ posters for Armani – these are important areas for brands to monitor. Lee adds that those companies advertising on these sites are also getting better at tapping into the potential of discussions on consumer-facing blogs and working out how to tie thematic advertising to them.

Film studios and major record labels, he says, are those corporate entities best at using non-business blogs for both advertising and editorial purposes. “From teasers and trailers to games and competitions, social media is opening up new ways of communicating with audiences; word of mouth is playing a huge part. As ever with social media, the return on investment is playing a key part in getting PRs and marketers interested,” he says.

Leaders of fashion

The research also indicates that fashion is an important area for bloggers, with 21% of consumer-facing blogs dedicated to this area. The Social Media Library has observed fashion designers being influenced by user-generated content and what people are discussing online. They are adapting their work to ensure it encapsulates the trends and sentiments discussed by key bloggers.

Despite all the ways in which social media can benefit companies, some are still reluctant to use the medium as they see it as a potentially damaging platform if too much is exposed or the wrong tone is taken.

One example of blogging going wrong occurred earlier this month when Damian McBride, one of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s senior officials, resigned after accidentally sending emails which discussed smearing senior Conservatives to a Westminster blogger.

Lee argues: “There is still a fear from some that the internet is a dangerous place. It is open to use by anyone, but of course when things go wrong, like the McBride scandal, there will inevitably be a backlash which brands have to face up to.

“Brands have to think long and hard about how they portray themselves and how they engage with this core audience. Once you have established a good relationship with your users, it’s important that you deal with any issues that arise and try to keep the relationship you have going strong. The new engagement tactics used by Facebook and MySpace ads are great recognition of this.”

Facebook is now the sixth most popular website in the world, with 275 million visitors in February – a 175% increase on the figure for the same time last year, according to data from comScore. In Europe, the site saw a 314% increase to nearly 100 million users that month.

Looking to Facebook

Lee says: “When it comes to fans and being online, Facebook is the audience most brands will think of first. The ability to set up fan pages, applications and gifts and so on has led to more brands seeking exposure on social networking sites. Bebo’s wish to expand its product placement opportunities is also boosting this.”

The Social Media Library research reports that networking sites are used mainly for music (17%), books and literature (12%) or business promotions (9%). It also found that podcasts have become more important in the past two years, with publishers producing content about current affairs (12%), music (10%) and sport (13%) among other themes. Celebrities are often brought in to help make the recordings more interesting to audiences.

The report also notes that social networking has a role to play in educating consumers about new products and services, helping to encourage more choice. Lee explains: “Online technology has always led the way with those consumers wanting to discuss the latest gadgets and systems and share their experiences. This has now been extended to healthcare with government initiatives offering patients the chance to rate their doctors and hospitals, and choose where they book for treatment.”

Whatever the talk around brands, blogging, networking and other social media, the challenge for companies is to convert this into revenues. The business models of digital companies are still in evolution; comparison website Moneysupermarket recently revealed that despite its visitor numbers rising by 6% in the recession, its revenues have dropped, resulting in job cuts.

Lee warns: “The key is to understand the environment. Brands must ensure everything is marketed in relevant areas. The essence of social media is it is a two-way conversation, personalised and relevant to these people. In an industry that is growing, brands need more education about its potential before they look to the medium to market themselves. It is more complex than most would think possible.”

The Frontline

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground:

Bonin Bough – global director of social media at PepsiCo: “Social media has the power to add value through audience participation. Throughout PepsiCo, we look to have deeper conversations with our customers and develop good connections with them. It makes us real and relevant to our customers and is a crucial medium for all marketers to embrace.”

Andres Sehr – global community manager at online music service Spotify: “By monitoring social media and engaging with our users on their own turf, we can greatly improve brand loyalty and show them we’re not a faceless corporation. Social media such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook have quickly become one of the main channels we use to educate our users about our product and services.”

Trevor Johnson – head of market development for Europe at Facebook: “Social media is changing the ways brands and consumers interact with each other. Through monitoring blogs and by having engaging conversations with consumers, brands can get a unique interaction with customers. People are tending to go online to read reviews about products before they go to shops; marketers need to follow this mentality and see social media as a way of reaching consumers personally.”

Simon McDermott – chief executive of media analyst Attentio: “One or two negative mentions [about your brand in social media] mean little, but a significant and growing trend of negative feedback online can be a leading indicator of threats or opportunity for the brand. A marketer can make informed decisions based on this information. All brands should monitor and measure social media: it is basically ridiculous not to.”

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