Use social space to earn consumers’ attention

Marketers must take advantage of new media platforms that house ‘24/7 focus groups’.

In the past couple of years, digital channels such as social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have moved from being the preserve of early adopters to become key elements in the plans of forward-thinking marketers.

This is partly because of the extraordinary reach these new media have achieved, and it’s partly the recognition that blogs, chat rooms, social networks and, most recently, microblogs such as Twitter have become the new forums for consumer discussion of brands. The result is a set of tools that combine non-stop focus groups with word-of-mouth and provide information with unprecedented speed.

These tools are available to all brands, rather than just a few “cool” companies. One of the year’s most talked about campaigns – price comparison website Compare the Market’s “Compare The Meerkat” – puts a significant social media element at the service of selling insurance. Only a few years ago, this would have been seen as too uncool to be able to take advantage of the social space.

As Saatchi & Saatchi’s director of strategy and NMA columnist Richard Huntington put it in his Adliterate blog a while back, there are no low-interest product categories, just low-interest advertising. How marketers can use these media platforms is a key theme of the NMA Live conference at the Online Marketing Show.

The show opens with a session looking at the first steps that brands new to the social space should take. Rather than waiting for brands to facilitate their discussions, consumers use social media tools to discuss their experiences. This has created what session speaker Leo Ryan, partner at agency Ryan MacMillan, calls the “24/7 focus group” aspect of the web. With a few simple tools, marketers can find out what people are saying about their brands, and start working out what to do next.

During the Social Networks For Marketing panel debate, representatives of LinkedIn, Habbo Hotel and Bebo will be talking about how brands can capitalise on the reach and engagement that social networks can deliver.

For many, that next step may be nothing more than acting on what customers are saying. For others, the dynamics of these online communities have become important as companies seek to identify key influencers and find ways of working with them while respecting the online virtues of authenticity and honesty – a set of approaches becoming codified as online PR.

Internet guru Esther Dyson said a few years ago that if she were starting a digital marketing agency, she’d staff it with PR people, as the skills required in the social space are more similar to PR than to advertising.

In fact, it’s becoming widely accepted that traditional advertising techniques struggle in social media. You don’t buy media in the social space, you earn it. This might mean encouraging customer advocacy, allowing staff to share information about their work on blogs or Twitter, or developing branded utilities – applications that are embraced by users for the value they deliver.

Such apps are common across social networks, but their use has really caught on in the mobile space, with iPhone apps being the best known example so far.

Here, the simple distribution and payment mechanisms in the form of app stores, combined with open systems that make the apps themselves easy to build, has resulted in a massive selection becoming available. In the Mobile Microworkshops session at the Online Marketing Show, one of the topics under discussion will be how best to use these mobile apps.

Some brands can go still further in the ways they work with their customers online. Encouraging them to post reviews of the company’s products on its website has the predictable benefit of making the marketing message more credible.

What’s more surprising is that the uplift in sales seen doesn’t depend on how favourable the reviews are, so long as they don’t slate the product in question. Companies using customer reviews also report a better understanding of why products sell, or don’t sell, a reduction in returns and more tailored product development.

Another approach to the problem of making sure that your products are the ones your customers want is to ask them directly by inviting them to join communities to offer advice and suggestions. The benefits seen by companies such as retailer New Look, which is adopting this approach, include greater understanding of their customers’ desires, improved loyalty and advocacy.

Away from the world of social media, one of the key issues for marketers is the need for a better understanding of the effectiveness of the various elements of their campaigns. From the beginning, the digital environment has sold itself as the most accountable advertising medium, but this has still amounted to little more than knowing which piece of advertising the customer saw immediately before making a transaction – a phenomenon known as “last click wins”.

This has two problems. It distorts the way advertising money is spent in favour of the medium that delivers the last click, and it is difficult to apply to social media, where a click may not be the desired outcome. The industry is now doing a lot of work to find ways of attributing value to all the points along a customer’s journey in a bid to solve these problems, and the progress will be discussed in a session on attribution.

Similar issues are at work in another problem that will be the subject of a panel session looking at how content is valued by advertisers. The rise of ad exchanges and networks on one hand and of social networks on the other is forcing rates down and creating great deals for advertisers.

But this means that, in turn, high-end publishers are struggling. They believe a model that only takes account of the cost-per-click devalues their content and makes it harder to deliver. It’s an example of another key trend in the interactive space – the old order being broken up faster than the new order is being created. As with so many of these trends, the result is far from clear and current solutions may only be transient.

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