No more faking it, today’s consumers demand authentic engagement

Stephen Haines, UK commercial director for Facebook, explains why social media presents both challenges and opportunities for marketers.

Throughout history, technology has changed the volume and speed of our communications, whether through written word, the printing press, air travel and most recently the internet. The question for marketers now is how to harness the way people use the internet to build brands and engage with people in a meaningful way.

As a communications tool, the internet is evolving from an anonymous, information based medium to a more personalised and social experience built around actual people. Today people prefer to respond to information if it is from a known source – whether it is via word-of-mouth from a friend or by opting-in to receive messages from a commercial organisation or a public figure. So how do you ensure your customers are open to receiving your information?

The first step is to engage with your audience by providing interesting content to them. In many cases people are genuinely interested in brands, so this creates huge opportunities for businesses to make genuine connections with their customers. However, this only works when marketers spark the conversation but don’t control it.

Today’s consumers are really savvy and don’t want to be sold to, so if people are willing to associate with your brand, they expect honest engagement in return. If they feel like you are selling or spinning them too much, they will ignore you. So it’s important that companies really understand what’s important to their brand and how they can engage their customers in an authentic way. Not every message should be commercial – instead you need to find a good balance between commercial messages and interesting content that supports key brand attributes.

Focusing on authentic engagement – positive and negative – will create a more genuine experience and be better for brands long term. That means that brands should be open to negative feedback – its part of the new reality. This type of ongoing, two-way conversation is a really powerful marketing experience for brands. We are already seeing brands working within this new dynamic to build stronger relationships with their customers.

For example, Marks and Spencer has found many interesting ways to push the boundaries of customer relations via its Facebook Page (http://www.facebook.com/MarksandSpencer). M&S maintains regular contact with its 100,000+ fans by posting specially created content on the Page daily – from details about new product ranges, special offers and in-store events through to the company’s CSR and marketing activities. The brand actively engages with the fans and even prompts them for honest feedback. For example, a recent post on the Fan Page asked: “Have you ordered online from us, can you let us know what you think about the presentation of your order?” From that one question alone they received over 200 comments – the majority of them very positive – and had over 50 people ‘liking’ it. The company also recently held a live webchat session on the site with Nayna McIntosh, the director of store marketing and design for M&S, and encouraged users to post questions. The response was overwhelming with 68 people attending the session and 80 comments posted.

This is a clear demonstration of a brand being open, sparking the conversation and encouraging brand ownership. In return, their customers reaffirmed their loyalty to M&S, not only on the M&S Facebook Page, but also to their network of friends. That’s powerful word-of-mouth.

Being able to truly interact with real people on a mass scale like this is the biggest shift in marketing since mass media. With more than 23 million active monthly users in the UK, and half of those returning daily, Facebook is the best platform for brands to achieve this type of mass reach and engagement.

Of course, the shift towards this type of marketing is changing the way we do business. The days of six month content cycles and “big idea” creative pushes don’t work in social media. Marketers need to engage directly with their customers and do it regularly and authentically. Special offers are great – people love them – but new kinds of content will keep people coming back for more and drive greater brand affinity. Today, people want to be part of the conversation and it is the marketer’s job to stimulate, not stifle, the discussion in an open, authentic way.

This marketing reality presents challenges, but it also presents so many opportunities. It is more open, yes, and that is new for many marketers. But it is also more connected and that means that the benefits of an ongoing, interactive conversation between brands and people are finally here.

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