The advent of social media three years ago roused many marketers into revaluating the role of brand sites in their fast-changing digital strategies. For the likes of Coca-Cola, Bacardi and Honda, the decision to pull away from corporate and campaign sites was encouraged by declining traffic and the promise of wider reach via social networks.
But the shift has now come full circle. At a time when marketers are creating content that people actually want to consume, brand sites are seen as the better engagement option to social networks where there are more barriers to purchase. According to advertising company Jun Group, Facebook and YouTube accounted for 69% of all campaign destinations in 2012 before falling to just 30% a year later. In contrast, websites as the primary destination rose from 25% to 61% in the same period.
The trend is all about “time saving and transparency” online, says Diego Sartori, social media strategist at affordable luxury hotel group citizenM. Brand sites now represent an efficient and effective repository for user-generated content that when harnessed can do everything from promoting what is on offer and managing customer expectations to surprising regular visitors with an improved experience base on their feedback.
Brand websites are becoming social hubs
CitizenM is feeding more user-generated content into its responsive site as a way to drive conversions from recommendations. Peer-to-peer reviews are a central pillar of the hotel chain’s business model and it is looking to elevate its importance through a stronger blend of curated user-generated content and branded content.
Sartori adds: “Branded content in a way dictates how you want consumers to perceive your product. At citizenM, user-generated-content through a social hub becomes the perfect validation of our USPs towards higher conversion, as it matches what we say, and how our consumers are experiencing it. Not displaying them on our site results in distracting consumers to find what others are saying elsewhere.”
Pressure on content
But the main challenge is identifying what best serves your potential customer. With so much content to share, it’s easy for marketers to show posts, pictures and feedback from users all at once, giving visitors too many options that could ultimately prove distracting.
Vodafone Group’s global head of digital Adam Stewart suggests advertisers find a social hub platform with the appropriate technology data crunching expertise to ensure they are delivering the authentic, persuasive user-generated content people want.
The reality is that brand websites are expensive to maintain and unless you have the marketing might of a Procter & Gamble or Unilever outsourcing the development of a socially powered site is the more feasible option.
Advertising technology providers such as EngageSciences and Jun Group have responded to the nascent demand, promising higher performance on web pages, ecommerce and user-generated content alongside deeper insights into customer demographics and behaviour.
Vodafone is partnering with EngageSciences to publish content around the brand, its products and fan reactions to its marketing on Vodafone.com. Much of the content is pulled from the company’s localised “Firsts” sponsorship platform, which was created to celebrate individuals’’ achievements.
Stewart adds: “Huge numbers of our target audience are on social media, so effectively using the positive user generated content (UGC) on the web and conversing with them on social media via our sites makes sure we encourage them to visit, stay and make a purchase on our sites.”
Placement, participation, conversion
Longtime observers point to the changing role of the brand site in the digital strategies of the likes of Vodafone and Microsoft as proof that the industry is at tipping point where user-generated content is outperforming branded content.
However, it is important to understand that the concept of a social hub is not destination dependent and marketers need to think of the site’s role in more fluid digital journeys – technologies are converging and websites and apps are becoming much the same thing, just accessed in different ways
Microsoft has been testing the theory around the marketing for its Lumia smartphones.
The technology company set up a social hub that curated tweets, Facebook updates and videos from Microsoft Mobile’s brand advocates promoting a challenge it issued to three of the world’s most respected design schools. Links were then provided to positive consumer reviews and product pages featuring the Lumia’s features, specifications and accessories. The voting phase achieved a 73% conversion rate resulting in 11,000 entries, the business claims.
Dan Fellows, global programs manager for social media and digital for Microsoft Mobile, adds: “There are no guarantees here but through extensive AB testing and the introduction of advocacy centered content we found over a 6 month period that our core consumers arriving through multiple doors into our .com site, have a greater propensity to convert once they have interacted and been exposed to user generated and voice of the consumer content.”
Multichannel businesses that take a holistic brand perspective to online engagement will regularly be breaking down channels to deliver more experiences that reinforce brand principles rather than play specific roles.
Iain Millar is head of innovation at Rufus Leonard, says: “With this mindset, digital channels like the ‘brand site’ and campaign are far more fluid and nebulous as successful brands design experiences that seek to engage people on their terms. A social hub may be right for some brands, but many have the capacity to deliver more value through real utility or service an area where you can provide real differentiation worth talking about rather than a place to talk about it.”