Can brands make an impact on social without paying?
Brands’ use of social media has evolved from clumsy attempts to engage customers to slick content marketing, but as social networks push their advertising products brands must decide whether they need to invest to grow their reach.
Social networks have historically been used as a way for brands to amplify their marketing content, in some cases without paying a penny. That has become more difficult as the sites have restricted the reach of brands’ posts and the sheer number of brand accounts and messages has increased.
Social networks are also keen to get brands to buy into their ad platforms, with the promise of improving their ability to reach target audiences. But does this work? Should marketers think of social media as a paid-for advertising channel or a low-cost conduit for their content?
Direct Line Group’s head of digital and social engagement Raluca Efford notes that with increasingly sophisticated technologies available to both publishers and brands, social media’s main selling point as an ad platform is gradually being eroded by other sites and ad formats. “Facebook has huge scale, but all the personalisation, contextuality and targeting have been available across digital buying for a while,” she argues (see Brand viewpoint, below).
Being selective about social content
Others see social differently. “The great thing about Facebook from an advertising perspective is that it’s targeted and we’re seeing great results from video in particular. Instagram is also driving a lot of traffic,” says Duncan Birch, social media strategist at London & Partners, the promotional organisation responsible for managing Visitlondon.com.
“Our priority is to drive traffic to Visitlondon.com. Editorially, our content is strong and to reach an international audience we use Facebook.”
Birch has not stopped sharing content directly through Facebook, but is becoming more selective about what content to push through social media, how much of it and in what form.
“We do like to create social-only content – it’s not always about driving people back to Visitlondon.com. When Facebook changed its algorithm [to relegate brand posts from users’ news feeds], brands were pushing out content that wasn’t getting any interaction, so now brands are making better creative. Depending on what the content or communications priority is, we’ll put a certain amount of spend behind it if we think it’s going to be of particular interest.”
Imagery, for example, in the travel sphere tends to have a big organic reach an Visitlondon.com enjoys the ability to source a lot of user generated content (UGC) to support this. If volume is the goal however, Birch can see only one course of action: “You can’t expect not to use Facebook in a paid way if you want to get results.”
“Social networks may want to connect the world but they also want to monetise it.”
Raluca Efford, Direct Line Group
Despite a push into sponsored tweets and paid-for advertising in general, Twitter is yet to make inroads as a viable ad platform. “Twitter is about being a news feed, it’s quick and more organic. We don’t tend to use it as a paid tool,” explains Birch. Many marketers agree, noting that any brand spend going towards Twitter still seems to go on internal resources for manning the Twitter accounts as a customer helpdesk tool.
Zoe Harris, group marketing director at Trinity Mirror, believes the argument has already moved on from whether social media is about content or ads: “Instead, it’s about how best to deliver advertising objectives. When I look at what other brands are doing, it’s just white noise. People are obsessing over likes and shares rather than the delivery and landing of their message.”
Harris intimates that there does not have to be a total separation of the ‘church and state’ of ads and content for brand communications to sit credibly on social. In a supposedly ‘omnichannel’ era, brands perhaps should not be thinking of communications in one channel or another. Paid-for ads boost earned media with viral potential, and a large marketing budget can even turn an otherwise piece of mediocre content into a ‘must see’.
However, there is always debate around the transparency of paid-for content in social, just as there is with more traditional editorial content from print, broadcast and online media owners. Sponsored content promoted by vloggers has recently come in for scrutiny from the Advertising Standards Authority, which warns advertisers not to dupe viewers by failing to point out that their favourite YouTube presenter’s infectious enthusiasm for a product is spurred on by the promise of a fat cheque.
As an alternative example of treating social media in an omnichannel way, Harris cites a recent campaign for Trinity Mirror’s newspaper Liverpool Echo that surrounded the strapline #TellAli, which encouraged readers to get in touch with its editor Ali Machray.
“The use of that hashtag across all communications was showing that, as a paper, we were listening. We shared it across more traditional formats as well as using it to respond to tweets. It’s not just saying that everything is integrated. Social has shown us some truths about people and how audiences want to interact with us.”
Merging social and paid is reaping rewards, with the Echo website receiving 400,000 to 500,000 unique visits a day; 100,000 are from Facebook.
“Customers like seeing what’s behind brands,” Harris continues. “They’re less interested in a corporate approach to how they’re communicated with and require brands to be more reactive. But this needs to go across a lot of activity that you’re doing.”
Her advice is to learn what “behaving socially” means and apply it to both content and ads, whether or not they are on a social platform.
Languages of social media
“There is still the big brand narrative but smart brands are the ones who are in on the conversation,” insists Michael Pennington, head of advertising, EMEA at Tumblr. “People are spending as much time on social media now as they were six years ago. But brands need to be cognisant of the vocabulary shift. The millennial, for example, is hyper visual in an emoji and gif-based language. It’s really important that brands understand the ‘native’ experiences.”
Does this mean that customers still do not want advertising to interrupt their social experiences? Perhaps it means that customers understand and accept advertising as long as it fits the platform, meets their needs and delivers on the promise of the creative, which in many cases means folding content into the execution. In an interview with Marketing Week, AdBlock Plus chairman Tim Schumacher praised Facebook for “treating advertising as an integral, built-in part of the experience”.
With Twitter generally recognised as being for the purposes of news and customer service, and Facebook and LinkedIn about communicating with friends and professional networks respectively, Pennington believes that Tumblr fits into the brand communications jigsaw when the requirement is for storytelling. He also highlights the need for brands to keep up to date with popular culture, mentioning that Warner Bros managed to capitalise on the feminism debate upon the release of Mad Max with Charlize Theron as the lead character.
Pennington concludes that getting the message right, whether a paid-for ad, an expensively and extensively crafted piece of content or a serendipitous meme, is only part of the social puzzle. “It’s about distribution rather than destination. You need to get that megaphone out there and ‘pop’ the conversation,” he says.
Case study: Riverford Organic Farms
Vegetable subscription service Riverford Organic Farms has long had a reputation for engaging with customers on the story behind its product. Customers frequently find hand-cut strips of paper in their boxes explaining why their carrots have been replaced by courgettes. In the beginning, the company’s founder Guy Watson regularly kept in touch with customers by newsletter, but since Facebook, it has become an altogether more social affair.
Head of media and content strategy Rachel Lovell explains: “When Facebook came along, we could do much more than just the newsletter. We now have a 41,000-strong audience on social media platforms without spending any money on ‘like’ campaigns. It’s all natural.”
Lovell points out that traditional social activities, such as competitions, do boost engagement but not nearly as much as when the company gets behind a ‘foodie’ campaign, such as TV chef and presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste. “People don’t just want free stuff. What our customers like is the real story. They are so sick of marketing guff and social media is great for honest and real conversation.”
Riverford’s social engagement is not all organic. Lovell reveals that the brand also buys targeted ads and carousel ads, as well as testing campaigns where targeted customer groups outside the existing fanbase are offered a third box of vegetables free.
Facebook has been a core of the company’s campaigns to the extent that the social network even sent a film crew to Riverford to find out how small businesses can maximise their exposure. It turned out that Riverford had the highest Facebook engagement in the UK for a company of its size. Eighty percent of the company’s audience on the social network are existing customers, but through both content and advertising on this and other channels, it is looking to extend its reach.
Riverford has begun to dip a toe in Twitter’s advertising waters and is also exploring the potential for live video streaming via Periscope. This follows on from early successes on YouTube where Lovell’s personal discovery and filming of a grass snake on the farm resulted in more than 90,000 views in 48 hours and a link up with the local conservation trust. From an advertising perspective, the company has invested in pre-roll video ads on the channel. “We have to justify everything, but it all reinforces what we’re doing,” she explains.
From the marketer’s perspective you want and need social to be a content engagement platform, where your potential customers are and where you can have a two-way conversation. But the reality is that the content is now seen by very, very few people so you do have to pay for that engagement.
What separates social as an ad platform compared to [your own] websites is that you’re not really in control of your community and your customers. That community has been built on someone else’s platform. In an ideal world you’d have them on your platform so we’re a bit at the mercy of what the social platforms do and where their commercial interest lies. They may want to connect the world but they also want to monetise it.
As a way of engaging consumers it has made us reevaluate what we’re doing and puts the emphasis more on creating quality and bespoke content that has more of a chance of cutting through organically, even when boosted, and has more chance to be truly relevant.
The paid-for element has made us more ruthless about creative. We have to be disciplined and very clear about our role. I wish the social platforms had stricter guidelines about the quality of content. I see a lot of ads that aren’t pertinent but to make their models work I think they’re moving a bit away from protecting people from seeing irrelevant ads.
We’re happy because we’re clear as to what we want the channel to be and our brands’ commitment to it. Churchill is all about dependability and Direct Line is about fixing things. The content that comes off the back of that should be really relevant and meaningful.