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The panel (l-f, above)

Branwell Johnson, acting editor of Marketing Week (chair)
Stephanie Walker, head of marketing, Global Action Plan
Andrew Nicholson, head of online marketing, Sodexo
Amy Seppman, partner & marketing director, JCP Solicitors
Michael Gilby, marketing consultant manager, Vocus
Carol Cork, marketing director, PrivateFly
Mark Jennings, head of digital, Last Word Media
Jane Sell, PR manager, B&Q

Brands at Marketing Week’s social media round table, sponsored by Vocus, acknowledged that social media was no longer the Cinderella channel within the marketing mix. A number of attendees noted that social media was either a direct part of their remit or was a central part of brand marketing, meriting dedicated and full-time members of staff.

Despite the formalisation of its role within brand marketing, attendees acknowledged that its constantly evolving nature proved challenging. Amy Seppman, partner and marketing director of JCP Solicitors, noted: “We’re getting our lawyers to use Twitter to push their articles and blogs. We try to point out that it’s only 15 minutes to get a post out there because there’s nothing worse than leaving a profile out of date – social media has to be kept current.”

Social media hasn’t just opened up a dialogue between brands and consumers, it has become a 24-hour rolling news, customer service and brand messaging channel. Consumers expect responses to be both helpful and timely. The windows of opportunity for brands to gather their thoughts are shrinking.

Attendees noted that there is an overriding sense that once brands join the social discussion it is important to maintain the pace. The problems arise when that pace is set not by the brand but the consumers. Mark Jennings, head of online for Last Word Media warned: “You can’t just dip your toe in, which makes it tricky from a resource perspective.”

Andrew Nicholson, head of online for Sodexo Prestige added: “What happens when things go wrong, or even right? You need to have a contingency in place to manage the conversation.” Stephanie Walker, head of marketing for Global Action Plan remarked on the need for careful management: “People use social media as a platform and it can get hijacked. You have to let people have their say but if you engage too much it can blow up more than it should.”

When it comes to justifying engagement in social media beyond pure responsiveness, participants claimed that their business leaders understood that generating specific return on investment was not a high priority but that the value of engagement could be demonstrated.

“When the story broke about the whistleblower Edward Snowden’s travel plans, our blogs on the subject led us to be interviewed by global press such as Bloomberg. That’s not generating direct ROI but it is raising our profile,” claimed Carol Cork, marketing director of private charter firm, PrivateFly.

Indirect returns can be demonstrated however, as Sodexo’s Nicholson pointed out: “One objective was for us to employ staff for London 2012. Activity on social media increased staff engagement until the event and we saved £1.1m in agency recruitment fees.”

Vocus’s marketing consultant manager Michael Gilby revealed that brands needed to consider how social feeds into other channels in the marketing mix. “We encourage clients to think about campaigns in social that will drive visitors to their site. The worlds of social and search are converging.”

Using social media as a vehicle to drive traffic to monetised areas of brands’ digital presence was agreed by the attendees to be a key part of its role. Jane Sell, PR manager for B&Q noted that Facebook ‘likes’ had a bigger impact than just the feel-good factor:
“Positive comments about our staff get people excited but a big part of our brand is that consumers look to us for advice. From Q&As with [B&Q brand ambassador] Project Pete via Facebook to our how-to videos on YouTube, social media extends reach and brings customers to DIY.com.”

Harnessing the ‘social’ element of social media was noted as being key to attendees’ success. While internal resources were devoted to managing and reacting through the channel, they all agreed that it was important to harness ‘brand enthusiasts’ to provide genuine, engaging content. PrivateFly’s Cork stated: “You have to work with the people you’ve got. Our CEO is a pilot himself and the operations team are at heart plane spotters, one of whom is superb on social media. You’ve got to harness that to have authentic conversations.”

Encouraging staff to get involved in the social media conversation can prove to be a great motivational tool. Global Action Plan’s Walker talked about other charities that rewarded the staff’s best tweets with something as simple as having a parrot on their desk for the week. Vocus’ Gilby revealed examples where staff faced with even the most mundane tasks could make them come alive by being able to demonstrate their expertise.

Attendees agreed that they were only comfortable with staff engagement in social media if the boundaries were made clear. B&Q’s Sell pointed out: “We monitor when staff talk on social media. We remind them that it is public and aligned to PR. If anything, we want to make sure that if a customer needs to talk to us, they know where to go. If a customer posted a query on a non-official site they wouldn’t get a response, which is a concern.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that brands interacting over social media are having to behave much more like publishers, considering how, what and when to post. “We just have too much content,” stated Sell. “Our plan goes up to Christmas and includes posts on Twitter and Facebook.” Cork added: “You have to think about who your customers are, not what you’re trying to sell. We talk about more than just private aviation – we talk about the vertical luxury market as a whole.”

Looking to the future, none of the brands attending had any immediate plans to monetise social media directly but acknowledged that all eyes were on ensuring it was active in supporting brand reach and engagement, and drove customers to areas where commercial priorities were higher. Harnessing ‘SoLoMo’ (social, local and mobile) is seen as the next target as Vocus’ Gilby confirmed: “We have seen a lot of success with Google+ and local business.”

LinkedIn was also identified as a key tool for the future, enabling businesses to drive greater cost efficiencies internally in areas such as employment while also using it as an important B2B networking tool. Using social media to collaborate further, be it internally between departments or between brands and consumers is seen as playing a central role in deepening relationships and increasing advocacy. Social media is proving its worth as a ‘money can’t buy’ tool.