By Jay Friedman
Social media has garnered advertisers' attention, to the point where spending on social will overtake newspapers by 2020, according to Zenith Optimedia. Yet despite this influx of dollars, it still seems that the definition of social media -- and more specifically, social networks and platforms -- varies widely among marketers.
The most common and simple definition seems to be that a social network is any site or app that allows consumers to connect, discuss, and share media and information. When we think of social networks, it's easy to think of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and a few other household names. But there are also dedicated chat apps, including WhatsApp, WeChat, and Telegram, among others. There are blogging platforms like Tumblr, which reached more than 38 percent of the total digital population in December 2016, according to comScore. There are voice platforms like Skype, Viber, and their competitors. Even Flixster, something that I personally think of primarily for finding movie times, has an engaged community and therefore technically meets this definition of a social network.
When the definition comes down to connecting and sharing, it encompasses a wide variety of platforms, apps, and communication channels. This means that marketers clearly cannot -- and should not -- build a strategy to be part of every single social network because it's far too easy to overcommit and overextend. When BlackBerry Messenger still claims to have 100 million unique users, marketers have to ask themselves where they stop. Successful allocation of budget requires them to narrow down the choices and find the social networks that work best for them, simultaneously providing their desired target audience and ROI.
The first step in navigating the wide world of social networks is to divide all of the platforms into two groups. The first group consists of platforms that brands can "colonize," meaning that the brands can own some land in the form of a branded page -- think of Facebook and Twitter, for example. The other category contains platforms where brands can only engage with consumers without establishing a branded bastion. For example, it's not possible to visit a brand's Skype page.
Using these two buckets to categorize all of the various social networks, marketers can then drill down deeper to find the social platform that fits their needs and goals. Here's where to start:
Some brands simply need their message to be seen by as many consumers as possible. When a product is for everyone and bought by almost everyone -- something like soda, deodorant, or toothpaste -- reach is important. When this is a goal, it's important to engage and focus on building communities within the largest platforms. That means going international: Coca Cola has a Facebook strategy, but it also has plans in place for Russia's Vkontakte and China's QZone.
Of course, massive reach isn't the best choice for a product that only appeals to a specific audience. Before writing this article, I was not aware of a single crochet needle brand. Apparently, Susan Bates is a big name in this world. Nor would I have guessed that there is a social network dedicated to crocheting, but there is -- let me introduce you to Ravelry! SimilarWeb pegs Ravelry's visits last month at just under 17 million, which shows you just how large a "niche" audience can be. Susan Bates's social strategy shouldn't completely forego Facebook, but it should look hard at deeply engaging with Ravelry and developing the most robust community possible within this customer-rich niche site.
Ever heard of Wanelo? If not, that's OK. It's representative of the newer, uncharted social networks that continue to emerge and attract impressive audiences. The shopping app claims 11 million registered users, but because it's not Facebook, fewer brands have committed to heavily engaging with it. In fact, it's safe to say most brands are wary of nearly all newer social networks. But 11 million is nothing to sneeze at, especially if these users are the right consumers. If it attracts a brand's target audience, then a newer, smaller, less brand-congested social network represents a bargain to be had, especially in terms of ROI.
Opportunities for Purposeful Exploitation
Domino's Pizza is a great example of a company using every channel imaginable to make it as easy as possible to order a pizza. For example, customers can order pizza on Twitter. To those who might not want to share their pizza orders with their Twitter followers, Domino's also has made it possible to order pizza via text message, Alexa, Google Home, and Facebook Messenger, to name a few.
While for most the current capabilities of Twitter are likely imperfect for ordering pizza, chat apps suit the general public perfectly for this kind of interaction. Domino's made a fairly large investment up front to kick off and maintain its Domino's Anyware program, but if this is what consumers want -- easy ordering with minimal interaction -- then it should prove lucrative for the brand.
Outlets for Experimentation
Brands that are testing a new product, brand positioning, tagline, or even just a new marketing tactic might want to avoid Facebook. Facebook may reach nearly 96 percent of the total digital population, according to comScore, but there's a lot to be said for smaller, closed environments that make it more difficult for consumers to share.
Remember, anything can travel across platforms. The spirit of experimentation isn't a license to be dumb and hastily push out half-baked ideas or brand messaging, but experimenting in smaller social networks allows marketers to be bold and smart about their brand's development. When there's a chance that an experiment can go wrong, marketers usually want fewer than 1 billion people to see and comment on their efforts.
All in all, social networks represent a massive opportunity for brands to participate in the exchange of ideas and media, whether that is through a platform that reaches hundreds of millions of people, or a small community formed around one hyper-specific interest. There is a social network out there that can help every brand with every one of its campaign goals. The key is for brand marketers to look across everything that fits under the social media umbrella in order to find the best match.