Big Society already exists – it’s called social media

If you’re a regular follower of our columnist Mark Ritson, you’ll be used to him using a blend of well balanced arguments and frank no-nonsense views to convince you that he is right.

Read Mark Ritson’s counter argument here

And in case he can’t persuade you the first time around, he’s more than happy to weigh in and continue an argument with anyone willing to take him on through the comments sections of his columns on

So, with full knowledge that he’s going to spend the rest of the week hauling me over the coals with 10 different types of watertight evidence that my arguments suck, I hereby state that I disagree with his column this week on the uselessness of social media to brands.

There are two main arguments that Ritson and others from the industry seem to level at social media. The first is that communicating in the social space requires one to be a human being as opposed to a brand to be of any value and the second is that there is no easily applicable measure of ROI.

Let’s take those points in reverse order. On ROI: I agree, there is no easy measure. I recently asked a room full of top marketers from a range of travel industry brands for a show of hands; who had worked out what a successful metric of return on investment in their social media activity looked like. Not a single hand went up. I then asked how many of them planned to invest a greater percentage of their spend in social media by the end of the year. All of their hands went up.

Is that worrying? Maybe. If you want to worry about it then go ahead. The marketers in the room however, weren’t overly concerned. Each of them had identified one or more serious, valuable uses for their social media.

O2's giffgaff campaign
O2’s giffgaff campaign

Market research, reputation management and PR, customer service; your business carefully allocates spend to all of these and yet none come with an easily identifiable metric. You may have read in last week’s cover story on the potency of open or closed branded online communities how O2’s giffgaff brand crowdsources its customer service. “The majority of questions customers ask are answered within the community by members within five minutes,” says giffgaff’s Robbie Hearn. “And if the answer they give isn’t correct it will get corrected by someone else in the community, or people will come back and say whether a tip they got worked or not.”

What this effectively means is that ’Big Society’ – the big idea that acted as a platform for the new Government’s strategy – already exists online. It has done for a long time. Disregard the hype and go and look for yourself. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube are full of meaningful conversations regarding things you really care about, professionally and personally. And when you find them you will also find swathes of people addressing any number of other people’s requests for information, enquiries for help, pleas for tips. Why? Because they can.

There is very little advantage or return for these people in helping or engaging with others that they will never meet in person. And yet they do. They gather, they share, they talk, they fight and they learn. This is what social human beings do. Unless you’ve worked out a way to sponsor conversations at parties, looking for a return on social media will get you nowhere.

Sir Martin Sorrell
Sir Martin Sorrell

The other argument about whether people want to hear from brands or just human beings? Well, brands don’t have much of a choice. The way we communicate with one another about pretty much everything is changing fast. This isn’t a fad for young people, it’s the start of a long term shift. WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell knows it. In our round up of last week’s statements by the big marketing services groups and the global trends they reveal, we quote Sorrell describing digital media and consumer insight as the “Premier League” next to television which he says is the “championship” comparatively speaking. And what is social media if it isn’t digital media with some consumer insight thrown in?

Mark Ritson distinguishes social media from other disciplines of marketing and he names PR, advertising and interactive (by which he informs me he means digital and email). Anyone who still separates social media out from any of those is, I’m sorry to say, utterly mistaken. To me it just means you are letting the world move around you and hoping you can get by on what you’ve always known.

Surely Twitter and Facebook are nothing if not interactive. Apps are interactive – they join people up with brands and many of them join people up with each other. And the nature of the relationships many of us have with our phones means that that interaction is never far away. ’Dead time’, the time we spend travelling on trains or waiting for a Doctor’s appointment, is no longer dead.

PR too is now clearly heavily linked with the social media arena. Many of your businesses are spending more and more on PR and the skills your HR departments are looking for include how to engage with an audience through the likes of blogs, Facebook and Twitter. And as for advertising, I saw the new cinema ad for Spanish beer Estrella Damm at the weekend. I loved all three and a half minutes of it and later searched for it on YouTube to see it again. My search provided other executions which I also watched and later commented on in a conversation with various lager drinkers from across the world. I’ve never bought or tasted Estrella Damm but it might well be the next new bottled beer I try in the pub.

We have written countless examples of social media being of great use to marketers across a number of sectors and disciplines, from cosmetics brand Barry M to financial services brand LV= to charities such as Save The Children. Even when we are trying to write about things other than social media, the ’T’ and ’F’ words crop up because marketers tend to link their most successful customer engagement with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

I do appreciate that the hype of social media outweighs the benefits right now and I think Mark Ritson’s view is going to ring true for a lot of marketers. That is because we’re not very good at it. Yet. Because I repeat again, this isn’t a fad. Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare are just a few early prototypes – some examples of the many new ways that we humans are going to keep up and communicate with one another.

The Annual, Marketing Week’s new conference on 29 September 2010
The Annual, Marketing Week’s new conference on 29 September 2010

It’s part of my job to monitor the long term shifts in marketing and customer engagement. And because customers are there, you need to be there. The power of television, print and outdoor advertising to build brand will never be bettered. It is far more limited in its scope however for the functions that social media can excel in when used cleverly; CRM, PR, customer insight, targeted interactive communications and so on.

If you as a brand aren’t there following the conversations, contributing something meaningful and when you’re asked to, guiding a user or fan to transact with you, you’re failing.

Of course if you’re interested in seeing Mark and me slug it out over this and other issues in person, or if you simply want to listen to him talk about the best and worst brand strategy case studies he has seen, book now for your place on The Annual conference now at

For more information or to book your place at the Annual go to


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