Few marketers have stopped to ponder the greater impact they could have if they thought beyond tactical mechanics, beyond banners and ad words, which are simply the display and classified ad formats of the online world. In a space where their customers have radically changed the way they interact with each other, advertisers should be following suit, creating, investigating and testing new ways to connect with and ignite conversations within their target group.
Maybe the social networks themselves should be coming up with more relevant marketing models in order to add value to their participants' experiences and their advertisers' results. However, you can't blame them for making hay while the sun shines by simply peddling sales of the usual online ad formats. Media agencies are queuing up to spend their clients' money on social media as digital budgets get a larger slice of the pie. Why would social networks bother to make more work for themselves in such a buoyant market? Give it a year and they may start looking for a differentiator, but for now the easy money will do nicely, thank you very much.
Viral marketing was a possible alternative marketing model for social media. It had the potential to leverage social networks and consumer endorsement as branded 'advertainment' material was spread from peer to peer online. Cut-through, however, has become more rare and difficult as the viral technique has been adopted by the mainstream and devalued through commoditisation. The sheer volume of material being generated by both users and brands is now arguably adding to the online clutter problem, rather than offering an antidote. In fact, few campaigns could be called truly viral these days. Most simply use some form of branded content for which exposure has been bought on a plethora of 'underground' sites, with little in the way of audited targeting.
Consumers are now forging an entirely different relationship with media and advertisers. They expect a greater degree of participation with brands in the same way that blogs, social networks and virtual worlds have changed the way consumers interact with each other. Advertisers and their marketing partners need to think beyond tactical campaigns. They need to be a lot more strategic about the wider, deeper process of consumer engagement and participation, rather than focussing on the execution of marketing 'events'. Simply emulating user-generated content, for example, is not enough anymore to win hearts and minds, let alone influence purchasing behaviour, which -- as opposed to some attention-orientated metric -- should be the bottom-line goal of all marketing activity.
The fundamental change for advertisers is to stop thinking of social networks and virtual worlds as media on which one advertises. They are first and foremost networks through which people connect and by which messages get spread. As such, advertisers' first thoughts should not be about the implementation details of what you plan to do, how you plan to execute it and where. It's far more important to step back and think strategically about why you should adopt a particular approach, who you will be connecting with and what you hope to achieve. Simply generating awareness or even consumer conversations ('buzz') may not help shift product alone -- everyone is aware of the flu and could even be talking about it, but nobody wants it. You may have to think of different means, such as generating customer advocacy, to achieve ends such as driving demand and shifting product. It also makes sense to adopt an approach that can help prove you have achieved those ends rather than measuring the outcome simply in terms of reach.
With a new year and new challenges just around the corner, it's high time more marketers got to grips with where social media fits into the big picture of customer connection and collaboration. Stop. Step back. Take a more intelligent, enquiring look at the process of marketing rather than individual events. If you can start by embracing the idea that it is more valuable to build long-term customer advocacy than to score short-term uplift, 2008 is already looking brighter.
Justin Kirby is managing director, Digital Media Communications.