In an era where consumers are accustomed to openness, self-promotion and ceaseless divulgence on a multitude of platforms, how do brands join in and add value to people’s lives, whilst adding value to the bottom line? Below are nine starters-for-10 on how to build rewarding relationships online.
1. Stop thinking like an ad agency
Relationships are mutual. A one-way transmission of information is not conversation – and rewarding relationships are built on conversations. Great ads might be funny or beautiful, but where is the engagement? Disseminating ‘news’ cannot be a passive process. You cannot have potential consumers thinking “that’s all very interesting but what do you want me to do?”. Before you answer “buy the product”, consider whether that is a realistic possibility or wishful thinking.
2. Let other people tell your story
This is the difference between advertising and PR, of course, but it is never as simple as it might seem. First, what is the story? You need an editorial mindset, agility and lightness of touch for a story to bear repetition and create a virtual conversation. Second, who is telling the story? Google disproportionately values authoritative sources of opinion, so persuading influencers to do the talking will not only impact a brand’s image, it will also reap benefits for search engine optimisation (SEO).
3. Use local market platforms
Find out which social media platforms are prevalent in the markets you want to exploit. The big social platforms in China are hybrids of Western trailblazers, so make it your business to research Sina Weibo, Qzone, Youku and Renren. Do not automatically apply Western sensibilities to any strategy. Instead, hire local intelligence.
Consider also that analysts predict the end of handsets that are not smartphones. Mobile is key and the price of entry is falling. Other emerging markets will have the greatest opportunities – how much do you know about Indian culture or the take-up of smartphones in South Africa and the rest of the African continent? What is your social media strategy for MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey)?
4. Build an army of influencers
Exploit the emergence of super-consumers to spread the word. Many of them should be your employees, so make sure internal communications are up to speed and globally consistent. In some respects, how that word spreads is out of your hands: consumers will use whatever means are at their disposal to say something that is worth saying. Knowing who is most positively influencing your product is a science, and for a mass-market brand it can represent a significant challenge. A good start in building your army involves being respectful, co-operative and communicative to anyone who says good things about your brand. So do not just invest in the data, invest in building relationships.
5. Tell compelling stories – use all your tools
Content is king. It’s a cliché, but true. Think about what you are selling and assess where your consumers go online and how. Would a long, wordy article on publishing site Medium work better than short video clips on Vine or images on Instagram? Are your targets more likely to use Pinterest or WhatsApp, Facebook or Google+? Would content created for one platform work well on another? Invest in creative thinking and quality content.
A brand can flirt with consumers all day but at some point, someone will have to make the first move and when that happens your content cannot be the PR equivalent of a movie set, where consumers take a peek behind the scenes and discover that is all there is. There needs to be depth; layers of engagement.
6. Create downloadable content and allow consumers to curate
Be flexible. Consumers might make more of your content than you imagined. Engagement is likely to involve consumers taking your content and adding their creativity. If that happens, rejoice and think of ways to keep those plates of inspiration spinning. The content created can be a lottery of unforeseen consequences, so be ready to respond.
7. Link to retailers and create experiences
Social media platforms are mostly huge, but all bloggers start small and all voices are individual. If you want consumers to buy, make it easy. Create and supply links to online stores so that small websites can be made to seem big. Their SEO success will be yours too.
Social apps are seeing strongest growth, so represent the most opportunities. Mobile metrics company Flurry reports that app use in 2013 more than doubled, up 115 per cent, and that messaging and social apps engagement was up 203 per cent.
8. Be aware of interplay between online and offline worlds
Consumers move seamlessly from one to the other and so should you. In relationships, consistency matters. Make sure your agencies and departments talk to each other. Make sure your in-store staff know what you are saying online. With so many communication platforms, it is as easy to exclude an audience as it is to target one. It depends on what is being said and to whom, but make sure the message across media is true to your brand. People still have face-to-face conversations as well as digital exchanges, and traditional media such as print are often the starting point for a story.
9. Let the picture tell the story
Video, great images and other visual references are still under-utilised. The number of online video watchers is expected to double to 1.5 billion by 2016, yet only 24 per cent of US brands use online video to market to consumers. The world’s best fashion houses do not explain their ‘brand image’ in words but allow it to shine through catwalk shows, look books, film and collaborations.