Proceed with caution along the social media highway

Debate about the merits of social media is never far from the top of a marketer’s agenda. Sceptics doubt the benefits for brands of the new social platforms, while new media evangelists are quick to champion the groundbreaking changes it might offer to brand management.

Which is the right approach to take? Well, it seems to me that marketers should proceed with a sense of perspective.

We have been here before. New platforms enjoy championship from over-eager agencies in adland, which have always been obsessed with the new – demonstrating to clients first mover advantage that “the end of the world is nigh” for everything that has gone before.

Take radio, which is supposed to have been killed off long ago by either “new and better” broadcast media – like the introduction of television (or colour TV, or breakfast TV or satellite TV) – or by the introduction of “new and better” personal music collections (from the record player, to the audio tape, to the compact disc, to the MP3 download, or is it now MP4?) In truth, radio’s reach is still at record levels today and new generations of TV and music devices replace old generations of TV and music devices, rather than the radio itself.

Similarly, cinema was supposed to have disappeared quietly years ago as videos, DVDs, rental stores and pay movies on TV made this archaic experience redundant (imagine – going to a draughty movie theatre with 500 people just to be able to watch a film). Yet, cinema admissions continue to rise.

Generally, this over-exuberance calms down when brand managers accept the inevitable truth that consumers in the likes of Bradford are shopping not tweeting or updating their social media status.

So, it should be self-evident for experienced marketers that social media is an unfolding extra element in a complex media landscape, rather than a replacement for what has gone before.

Radio
Radio is supposed to have been killed off long ago by ’new and better’ personal music collections. In truth, radio’s reach is still at record levels today and new generations of TV and music devices replace old generations of TV and music devices, rather than radio itself.

In truth, new social media sites are now replacing old social media sites. Facebook is a phenomenon but it is also a better replacement for last year’s hot social media sites – anyone remember Friends Reunited, Second Life, Bebo or MySpace? – as well as a replacement for email and the phone call. In the Darwinian process of social media launch and extinction, Facebook is the fittest survivor (so far).

This, of course, has implications for brand managers, which is why they should only proceed with caution.

The right first step, ironically, might be to hone your brand’s defence plan before indulging your agency’s attack plan. Social media has the power to undermine or bring down your brand. Most marketers are scared to death by the power of social media to whip up a brand boycott or a scare.

As a result, you need a defensive strategy to protect your brand. This is passive but engaged, or proactive containment, and should be taken to a level that is necessary and sufficient but no more. For most brands, that’s probably enough. Unless you can clearly see further commercial advantage, stop there.

That’s why the only sensible next step is to test commercial opportunities. In the digital world, there’s an exciting new app for consumers to enjoy every day. Not all of these have a clear commercial application, so be careful and test. If it builds your business, go forward. If not, stop.

If it builds, be wise on budgets. Some brand managers have been swept along with the digital tide into “budgeting” 10% – or even 20% – of ad-spend on digital without any regard to the delivery cost of the medium (a fraction of TV) or its effectiveness.

Jumping on bandwagons without knowing where you are going seems a risky way to reach your destination. Social media is, at best, a rather indirect way to secure brand sales. It’s difficult enough to read the correlation between a TV spot or a newspaper ad and a sales uplift, but it’s virtually impossible to read the correlation between a social media campaign, an increase in your brand’s number of Facebook friends and a sales uplift.

And if you are trying to increase web contacts not real sales contacts, don’t be surprised when the marketing department is not invited up to the boardroom.

Finally, be ruthless about whether or not your brand has talkability or buzz and can benefit from the social media space. Social media is a conversation and what people want to talk about is content – so if you create it then you can join the conversation. Social media is social (the clue is in the name) not B2B, so if you’re not an entertainment brand, don’t try to be one.

Few brands are compelling and interesting enough for a year-round social media campaign. And even if you think yours is, don’t assume you’ll sell any more as a result.

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