Hoodwinked by the emperor’s new tweets

Last week, I sat with the senior management team of a big client that I consult for to review the marketing plans of the company’s three major brands.

Mark Ritson
Mark Ritson is an Associate Professor of Marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands.

Each time, the brand manager concluded with a major part of the spend going on social media; each time I winced. I know it’s heresy for a marketer to even question the power and potential of Facebook, Twitter and the rest. But despite the recommendations from ad agencies and the repeated prognostications in the media, I remain unsure about the practical value of social media for most marketers.

Facebook, to be fair, has its attractions. One of the brands last week has more than 2,000 friends on its Facebook page – way more than the average British brand. But it also has more than 2 million consumers, so how feasible is Facebook as a marketing tool compared to traditional media? It certainly offers a free and powerful channel of communication with some viral potential – but with 0.01% reach of current consumers and no direct impact on other target segments it’s hardly going to have a revolutionary impact on my client’s marketing strategy.

Twitter is an even less impressive option. It might be a social phenomenon but how am I actually going to use 140 characters aimed at a tiny proportion of my target market to build brand? Last week the Financial Times proclaimed that the best brand builders were all using social media and quoted Engine’s Debbie Klein who believes Twitter and other social media have “fundamentally transformed marketing from a monologue to a dialogue”.

Maybe Debbie’s idea of a dialogue is sending 140 characters to complete strangers who never reply. That sounds to me like just another massmonologue.

The only cases that the FT used to prove its point were the repercussions for Eurostar after its snowbound passengers tweeted their disgust at being stranded last December and the bad publicity for Southwest Airlines after American director Kevin Smith twittered he had been thrown off one of its planes for being too fat.

Is that the best it can do? Because I could make a strong counter-argument that both incidents would have been just as well publicised and damaging to the respective brands had Twitter never twattered into life in the first place.

I can appreciate why 2 million people follow Google on Twitter and what those consumers get in return. But most brands don’t have the newsworthiness, broad appeal or dynamism to have any chance of making Twitter work for them. Are mundane brands like Rentokil (sample tweet: “The mouse was hiding under the teapot all along”) and Hellmann’s mayonnaise: “Don’t just spread the love, dip and squeeze it too!”) really doing anything for their brand except annoying the handful of consumers that signed up (briefly) for their tweets? And let’s not forget that, despite all the hype, Twitter has been gradually losing visitors to its site for more than a year now. So whatever questionable value it ever held for brands is now in decline anyway.

And then there is YouTube. What a marvellous tool for brand building that turned out to be. Just to prove my point that much of social media is draped in the emperor’s new clothes – name me five British brands that have used YouTube in the past year to build brand equity. Any that spring to mind? Thought not.

Name me five British brands that have used YouTube in the past year to build brand equity. Thought not.

How about branding success stories using LinkedIn? Or ChatRoulette?

My point is not to deride all social media. Clearly some brands will benefit from these new tools. But I do question if the impact of social media and its applicability to most brands are as big or as game changing as many experts would have us believe. Six weeks ago, for example, we were being told that this would be the first election decided by twitter and Facebook.

Rubbish. As usual the vast majority of the British electorate, at least outside of Soho, made their mind up based on TV and newspaper coverage. Marketers are a fickle bunch. We love anything new and shiny because deep down we fear being left out of the clique or appearing ignorant of the latest marketing buzz.

If I posted a picture of my arse on the internet and called it MagicMarketing.com and then got my brand manager mates to tell everyone it was an awesome new social media tool, I bet by Christmas I could get 5,000 marketers to agree with the statement: “I am considering Magic – Marketing.com for my marketing mix in 2011”.

Half would tick the box because they were told it was hot at a dinner party and the other half because they had not heard of it until asked and assumed, in a panic, that they should have.

If a big brand does not tweet or use Facebook, the brand manager in charge is usually blamed for being out of touch with the social media revolution. But perhaps they are actually media savvy. The one thing social media has succeeded in doing is reducing the prices of direct marketing, outdoor, TV and other traditional media. Those of us who cannot see the

Emperor’s new clothes should take pride, take note and take action.

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