Right before the end of the year, there was a strong backlash against marketing through social media channels. If you were working anywhere near social media, it was hard to miss: People said it doesn't work. People said it doesn't work as they'd like it to. And people said it may work, but it takes effort (my favorite).
It was probably inevitable. There's never been a more explosive media format than social media. As someone wrote on one of my newsfeeds, "Is there anyone out there who isn't starting a social media company?" At any rate, backlash is practically street cred for the internet set. It's right there in the arc of the internet's growth.Personally, I have no question as to whether social media is a proper marketing channel for a company, and that's because of one simple reason: In the very near future, all media will be social media. Here's why -- and what it means for you.
Let's pause for a second before heading off into the future. For many brands, you could probably argue that all marketing efforts have already gone social. How?
A high percentage of purchases are already preceded by online research. And where there is online research, there are search results. Those search engine results pages often bring up links to a number of consumer review sites. Now, if you've done any amount of conversation monitoring, you know that reviewers don't exactly pull their punches. Even with shopping sites like Amazon, consumers posting negative reviews are hitting the brand where it hurts most -- at the point of purchase.
So given the above scenarios, even in a "controlled" push-media world, many brands can't even make it through the far end of the buying decision funnel without running head first into a social media situation. Compounding matters, many consumer comments are on social sites like Yelp, where they quickly rise to the top of search rankings.
This point-of-purchase invasion is heading for the physical shopping world as well. Have you tried any of the bar code scanner tools for mobile phones? I haven't found one that works well. Today. But with several of these technologies already in consumers' hands, how long until that's as seamless a part of the buying process as reading an Amazon review before purchasing online? Shoppers will be able to scan an item themselves and get all sorts of product information -- right in the store.
So where's a company to hide from social media? On TV? Whether IPTV or internet TV is the TV model of the future, TV viewing is going to be highly social. I'd say the best glimpse of that future right now is internet TV.
Last November, I watched my high school football team play in the state championship -- on my laptop while waiting for a flight at O'Hare airport. Next to the video stream was a live chat box, open to anyone viewing the game. No sign-up, no identity verification -- just post off the top of your mind (and many did). Welcome to social viewing.
What I found particularly interesting is that during the few lulls in the game (they set the record for most points scored in a state final), the chat conversation topics would drift outside the game video to address the surrounding content on the page -- including the ads. And it certainly wasn't all positive.
Social viewing technology is also currently available in the "Watch & Chat" section of CBS.com, on View2gether.com, and in beta at NBC.com. It's similar to the gaming experience on Xbox Live, except that platform focuses primarily on voice instead of text.
If you project social viewing onto a national broadcast-like environment, you can imagine how vulnerable brands will be to public floggings. Social viewing carries with it all the things you were afraid of on the social networks, now fueled by anonymity combined with the reach of broadcast TV. With search engines aiding and abetting these conversations, even comments on small broadcasts could be discovered and shot into the mainstream conversation rapidly.
In addition to TV, the future of display advertising offers little sign of protection from social media. Have you seen the display ads on Facebook? With commenting capabilities underneath? I recently commented on one, and it went straight into my newsfeed -- broadcast to all my "friends." (Facebook didn't even flag me that this would happen.)
You should expect comments across all online media to be more visible in the future. Disqus is already connecting comments across 45,000 websites, archiving them, making them more searchable, and tying them to database technologies like Plaxo.
Surely someone will invent something to stop all that, right? Here's what that would require: Less data made public for everyone to see. Less inclination among people to expose deeper and deeper levels of their lives in public. And fewer and fewer brands willing to venture into new media.
But since the public onset of the web, trends in this respect have been quite the opposite -- overwhelmingly so. So, in order to avoid that kind of social environment, brands would have to be practically invisible to anyone using online media -- and that's not exactly the objective of marketing departments.
So what's a brand to do?
If the thought of participating in social media today seems scary, the thought of not participating in it in five years should really scare you.
Many brands will trip in their adoption path of social media. It just doesn't work the way push media like TV and print do, where you can turn on the fire hose and go from zero to $5 million a month in spend overnight. Doing so would be like the shy, quiet kid in the back of the classroom deciding to become the class clown the next day. It wouldn't be very authentic. And worse, it would be a path right back to the old-school "we're cool because we said so" form of branding. Beyond all that, it can take time to understand your audiences and to figure out what interests them and what they respond to.
This is what I would suggest to any brand that doesn't think it can go social: Start small and work your way up. Don't try to be Burger King in a month. Be yourself in a month. Start laying a foundational presence in the primary social media arenas. Initial moves into social media can be as simple as providing store locations, product information, coupons, or quizzes. Regardless, social media is where your customers are. It's where you should be too.
Papa John's has taken this route quite effectively on Facebook by adapting its website ordering technology for the social media network. As of this writing, the company has more than 200,000 "fans." Two months ago, prior to launching the Facebook app, it had about 10,000. Its 200,000 fans are a great social marketing foundation. If Papa John's can involve fans in a future Facebook campaign, their involvement will be forwarded on to their friends' newsfeeds.
Last year at SXSW, Mark Zuckerberg said the average number of friends on Facebook is 150. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, that's a newsfeed multiplier that can build significant word of mouth.
Another proven social media tactic is to go directly to a community or group of influentials that includes your target audience. If you have something to say or share, they'll welcome you. And the more value you bring to them, the more they'll give back to you.
Virgin America connected with Boing Boing to launch its service here in the U.S. The company started by asking the Boing Boing editors to name one of its planes. (In true Boing Boing style, they tagged it "Unicorn Chaser.") That started the relationship. From there, Virgin America invited a top Boing Boing writer to join the inaugural flight.
Of course, effective social media marketing often comes back to the need for a quality product, which Virgin America has. And this reflects what Seth Godin has preached for years: Good products create their own positive press. The glowing reviews on Boing Boing were not only well written, they were supported by a convincing overview of the standout features on the plane. Boing Boing has a readership of more than 3 million early adopting consumers. What would it cost to reach them with a TV or print ad? And what ad would ever attain the level of credibility that came from Boing Boing's coverage?
So how should you begin your brand's move into social media? By reaching out to the people who are most interested in your products and services. Discover who your brand advocates are -- or who they could be. Figure out what they like about you and what they're interested in. There's a treasure trove of consumer research in that alone.
From there, expand your activities and begin engaging them in fun and distinct ways that define your brand's personality. You want to evolve with the medium so that several years from now, you don't come off as some uninformed noob.
When it comes to social media, think of your brand as a person. You don't have to be the class clown -- but you at least want to make an impression worth remembering.