In recent history many innovations have revolutionised communication. The commercialisation of printing presses 200 years ago, the emergence of broadcast 100 years ago and the development of digital over the past 10 years have all transformed the way we communicate.
According to the latest report on internet usage from the Office of National Statistics, 38 million adults in the UK (76%) accessed the internet every day in 2014 – 21 million more than in 2006.
The report also showed that the use of mobile phones to access the internet more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, from 24% to 58%. Social media platforms have also become a powerful content generating tool, as well as a communication channel, with over 300 million images uploaded to Facebook every day, according to design and technology blog Gizmodo.
So while digital is nothing new, its use has reached a critical mass that has made it a truly commercial proposition, which is an incredibly exciting development for communicators.
For some years, brands have been experimenting with digital and social media, sometimes generating great results. But now is the time that every brand can, and must, capitalise on the two-way dialogue that is firmly open between brands and consumers.
Making a connection
The problem is that digital is still seen as Pandora’s box by many brands. It is out of their control and comfort zone and it can be all too easy to ‘play it safe’, particularly for established brands. However, it is no longer possible to ride off the back of a great product or, indeed, a monopoly in the market.
Across every sector, ambitious challenger brands are demonstrating that they understand the importance of digital and social media in creating brand differentiation. They are using digital and social to communicate in more engaging ways than ever before, giving audiences a reason to make an emotional connection that goes beyond the want or need for a product or service.
This is the holy grail of how to communicate with real effect and every brand can achieve it by following five simple rules.
Know what you stand for
Having a strong brand is essential. People have emotional connections with brands, not businesses. So while a great product or service will help build a successful business, a strong brand will stand for something with which customers can relate and create a bond. This should be the basis for all communication and the reason why more PR agencies are recruiting brand planners to help clients understand their vision, values and beliefs, as well as their personality and tone of voice.
This process provides a unique collection of characteristics that will guide you towards the tactics and content you need to bring your brand to life and differentiate it in the market for the right reasons.
Understand habits and behaviours
Once you understand your brand, you need to understand who you are communicating to. What are their wants and needs? What drives their purchasing decisions? What do they like to do, read and hear about? What do they dislike? What channels do they consume and when? What type of content do they like, engage with and share?
There are many ways you can gather this information, but the gift of digital means that simply auditing audience behaviours online gives you everything you need.
Brands already take learnings from this voyeuristic approach and are using them to fine tune content, to the extent where user-generated content or crowdsourcing tactics form the basis
of overall campaign activity. This should also include analysis of device usage and, crucially, peak activity periods as content and conversation need to be delivered to users on their terms in order to see real results.
Armed with this information, you can create relevant content and powerful, effective campaigns that are bespoke for your audiences – reaching the right person, at the right time, with the right message.
Be meaningful and relevant
Whether you are a business-to-business or business-to-consumer brand, your audiences will be bombarded online with marketing and PR content from every kind of organisation. At best, content that is irrelevant and robotically churned out will just fade into white noise. At worst, it will leave consumers with a less than favourable perception of your brand.
To be successful, brands must invest time listening, engaging and sharing meaningful and relevant content. Your ultimate aim is to make them stop, engage and share your content by involving the audience directly with your brand and therefore sharing influence.
Getting it right requires a level of investment in both time and/or budget. That means making sure you are justifying spend with thorough evaluation that clearly shows the effect of your activity.
Analytical insight provided by tools such as Sprout Social can give an instant top-line overview of basic metrics, such as community growth levels and engagement rates. Sentiment analysis is also useful when demonstrating the success of projects such as rebrands or during a crisis management period.
Harder metrics demonstrating a true return on investment are becoming increasingly important when proving success. Tools that do this successfully are limited, with Google Analytics being one of the few offering accurate insight.
Adapting to change
The reality is that digital both gives and takes away; it gives communicators much more opportunity to understand and therefore engage audiences, but it takes away the control that they are used to.
Audiences dictate how a brand communicates with them. They consume the content and messages they want, from where and when they want to – and they can publicly publish what they like. The key is to invest time in building relationships and communities, and continue to adapt to the pace of change.
Keeping up with the fast-moving digital landscape will be an exciting challenge for some, but will seem like a daunting task for others.
Focusing on understanding your brand position and personality, investigating the needs of audiences, creating and sharing meaningful content plus measuring impact ensures every brand can use digital to significantly improve perception, influence, awareness and, ultimately, advocacy.