Mike Nutley: On social media networking

The beginning of this year has seen social media firmly back on the advertising agenda. Early last month the IPA produced a report looking at the importance of social media to advertising, and advertising agencies. Shortly afterwards the plans of two of the UK’s biggest brands – the London Olympics and Virgin Atlantic – to use social media came to light.

The aims of the two organisations are, unsurprisingly, very different. Locog wants to use social media to link with sponsors of the 2012 Games such as Adidas and promote real-world participation in sport among young people. Virgin Atlantic intends to build a social network around travel, allowing people to share travel experiences and recommendations, all with the goal of inspiring more trips and thus selling more tickets.

Virgin is far from alone in its aims. Last year British Airways launched a social network, Metrotwin, sharing the best of New York and London, and there are several independent Web 2.0 travel sites that offer a mechanism to help travellers meet while on their travels, and to swap recommendations. WAYN (Where Are You Now), for example, is targeted at younger, gap year types, while the audience for high profile start-up Dopplr is what it terms “high-velocity lifestyle” business travellers.

This competition raises an important question for Virgin, BA and other airlines looking at social media. Do enough travellers want this service from travel brands to make it worth building the sites? Or are branded offerings insufficient, or simply not compelling enough, compared to independents?

Certainly the short history of brands’ involvement in social media suggests that people prefer independents. High-profile social networks created by such giants as Wal-Mart have been embarrassing failures. Is there hope for the brands in the longer history of the internet? The dotcom boom of the late Nineties was driven to a great extent by start-ups aiming to grab opportunities that existing brands were too slow or too un-digital to see, but the crash that followed wiped out the majority of the upstarts. However, it’s unlikely whether that represented a definitive preference for established brands, as there were many other factors at work. And it’s also true that the shake-out that started in the dotcom crash is far from over, and as it continues the survivors tend to be those more in tune with the increasingly digital public.

The success of branded social networks will depend to a great extent on old fashioned brand strength, and how far brands can be extended. How loyal are travellers to airline brands, particularly now? And does a brand like Virgin have the reach, both in brand terms and geographically, to sustain a travel community of 2 million people, as it aims to? You might trust Virgin travellers to give you good advice about New York or Los Angeles, but would you go to them to find out about Istanbul or Barcelona?

The problem of brand stretch can be seen in the struggles of footwear brand Dr Marten’s, which in 2006 set up a social network based around music. New Media Age discovered in 2007 that fewer than 4,000 people had signed up in a year of operations. Again, why would you go to a shoe site to find a music-based community when there’s MySpace?

Locog’s aims may be grander, but its ambitions for social networking are less ambitious. It’s looking at the medium as a way of connecting people; in this case experienced sports people and people who “have some interest in sport but don’t see the social rewards in it,” according to Locog head of new media Alex Balfour.

Precedents here are much more encouraging. The Royal Navy has had significant success with a recruitment campaign that consisted simply of a Bebo page where a navy helicopter pilot blogged about his life and answered questions. And sites from Friends Reunited to Handbag have found that online communities tend to replicate themselves in the real world, because people who’ve got to know each other online want to meet face to face. It will also have less of a problem with brand reach; an Olympics site is a natural place to go to for a sports community, although you could still argue that putting athletes’ pages up on existing networks would be just as effective, and significantly cheaper.

Of course brands have always had a tendency to become media owners. The internet has only made that easier, and much of future marketing is going to be based on brands providing a choice of content for potential customers to discover and consume. But there’s a big difference between providing brand-related content such as reviews and assuming that your customers are happy for you to use their opinions and experiences to sell more stuff. As the IPA report points out, guidelines for brands’ use of social media are starting to emerge: high-involvement categories fare best, creativity and innovation are at a premium, and – in my view the most important – humility is a virtue. 


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