Exploring online engagement

Joe Stubbs, junior consultant, Promise Communities, discusses how brands can gain consumer insights from online discussions, but should use this information widely and in context of a bigger picture

Social media engagement strategies and buzz monitoring are seen as the latest must have by many companies. Yet very few (if any) business decisions are actually being made by listening to the social web. It’s not that companies are ignoring the conversations that are taking place online but rather they don’t know how their business should respond to the “insights” unearthed by these new tools.

The internet today offers more opportunity for organisations to distribute different forms of content, be it videos on YouTube, photos on Flickr, or posts on Twitter. But to harness the capability of the internet, brands need to understand what it is they want to get out of a conversation with consumers. In a rush to get content on the internet, brands are confusing creating noise with engagement and as such are struggling to see real value online.

The challenge for brands does not lie in utilising the social web as a 21st century billboard, but in gaining value from conversations with consumers. It’s unlikely that web users approach platforms such as Facebook and MySpace with a mindset of influencing the outcome of brand decisions, and nor should they. These platforms are designed to facilitate social conversations, and brand affiliation in these spaces is more about making a statement about me than it will ever be about wanting to engage substantially with products and services.

To a certain extent, the social web does come in useful for identifying some opportunities or issues and can be used to gauge the size of these. However, understanding why consumer trends are happening or knowing who opportunities are relevant for are harder to establish in the world of social media.

Taking how consumers behave online at simple face value can sometimes lead to ill-informed business decisions. Take Johnson & Johnson’s 2008 campaign for painkiller Motrin campaign, which reflected on the back pain new mothers experienced carrying their children. The advertisement attracted a barrage of criticism from Twitter and mum bloggers, so the company made the decision to pull the advert.

But let’s look at the real picture. A video protesting against Motrin attracted just over 60,000 views – less than the power of a single 30-second advert on cable networks. Survey work found that 90% of women, the core protest group, had never seen the advert, and once they had, 45% liked it. Just 15% had a negative view. Whilst 8% said that the advert had negatively affected their feelings towards the brand, 32% actually liked the brand more.

Our experience shows that creating safe social media environments where consumers can express themselves and their views openly is the best way to develop conversations that can have a real and positive impact on brand decisions. It is as important when conducting substantive research online to know who you are talking to online, as it is offline, and it is important to appreciate the limitations of online tools, just as one might a focus group or survey.

Bespoke, closed social media environments remove the disadvantages of open online environments and address many business needs whilst retaining the core benefits of conversation. Whether you’re working on consumer insight reporting, innovation pieces, or strategy consultation, it’s important to define a specific need within the business and then look at how an iterative conversation can be developed in an online space.

We believe that online engagement has a key part in any brand engagement strategy. When done well, this kind of engagement leads to greater insight and greater levels of trust. It will be what consumers come to expect very soon.

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