Can Social Media Really Be Used for Branding?
First, let's define the terms "branding" and "social media." Through careless overuse, these fundamental advertising concepts have been deprived of their essential essence.
Stated simply, branding is the process of creating a feeling, attitude or perception in a person towards a product or company. Branding helps a company differentiate itself from the competition. It is what makes us think of Coca-Cola as more "old fashioned" and "established" and of Pepsi in terms "edgy" and "for the young generation."
Now let's move on to social marketing. There are many examples of places on the Internet where people come together to form brand social communities. Facebook is one. Twitter is another. Email newsletters are the oldest social communities and the most commonly used by brands.
Traditionally, marketers have used broadcast mechanisms such as TV ads, radio spots or display banners to blast their message to a wide audience. In the broadcast branding model, the focus is on primarily on garnering reach (number of impressions) and frequency (how often) within a target demographic -- in essence talking to a wide pool of anonymized impressions.
However, in a social branding campaign, the marketer can't think in terms of anonymized impressions. This is because social groups are made up of people and not impressions. So the focus of the campaign shifts to acquiring user data of consumers who want to hear from the brand -- the name, email address or social networking handle of the end user. Instead of planning a campaign targeted towards women 18 - 54, a product manager at Gap could now reach consumers based on their individual preferences -- be it for khakis, jeans or summer dresses.
The prospect of speaking to a consumer in such a customized way is enticing, and is a large driver of the buzz around social media. But before social media can take off as a mainstream branding tool, it has to prove itself capable of delivering those old branding staples -- reach and frequency.
And for both metrics, social branding campaigns are more than up to the task.
If you want to find America's consumers, go online. There, you'll find 76.2% of consumers in America. And they are social. In fact, it seems that's all they ever do. According to Forrester Research, over 95% of people in America have an email address. Nearly 50% of people share their email address with 20 or more friends.
Email might be the oldest engagement tool in the marketing toolbox. But the new social vehicles aren't doing so badly either. According to research released by JP Morgan, U.S. consumers watched approximately 240 million YouTube videos a day in 2009. Over 100 million U.S. consumers across all key demographics are on Facebook. And if one accounts for the viral effect, the effects are staggering. A Ford Fiesta video campaign launched earlier this year got 6.5 million YouTube views and 50,000 requests for information about the car -- virtually none from people who already had a Ford in the garage.
While social media can match or come close to broadcast in terms of delivering reach, it definitely has a clear advantage in delivering frequency.
TV shows typically deliver high audience duplication from one episode to another. But marketers have to pay for the second showing of an ad all the same. Achieving optimal frequency can quickly get to be expensive.
In a social branding campaign, marketers acquire the email address, Facebook username, Twitter handle or site login username with the explicit permission of the consumer. They don't have to pay a dime for subsequent communications. What's more, if the marketer leverages the acquired consumer data properly, future messages can be delivered in a relevant and customized way. Relevant messaging helps boost important metrics like aided/unaided awareness, brand preference and loyalty.
"Acquiring the email addresses of people who are interested in our products is instrumental to our leadership in the marketplace," says Jared Blank, Senior Director, e-Commerce, Tommy Hilfiger. "It allows us to communicate the wide breadth of offerings in a crowded marketplace effectively and keep consumers engaged with our brand."
I am not making the case for an either/or approach. But marketers need to take advantage of the potential for reach, frequency and meaningful branding that exist in social media. For this to happen, they have to first to make that fundamental shift to focus on acquiring user data instead of planning for anonymized impressions.
It is already beginning to happen. Earlier this year, Pepsi decided not to advertise during the Super Bowl. Instead, it started a Pepsi Refresh social media initiative.
"It's a big shift," said says Lauren Hobart, chief marketing officer for Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages said in Time. "We explored different launch plans, and the Super Bowl just wasn't the right venue, because we're really trying to spark a full-year movement from the ground up. The plan is to have much more two-way dialogue with our customers."
To which I say, Ditto.