But a new study suggests the key to engagement on social properties comes down to old-fashioned direct marketing techniques like offering discounts and special promotions. "Based on our research, it's not so much about some type of 'shared passion' for a brand's values. Largely, it's about deals -- pure and simple," states the 2009 FEED report from Razorfish examining consumers' digital habits and attitudes.
The findings were based on a survey of 1,000 "connected consumers," or people that roughly mirror the 63% of the U.S. population with broadband access. It also encompasses Internet users who have spent $150 online in the last six months, visited a community site, and consumed or created some type of digital media.
So social media marketing isn't so much about boosting brand awareness as enticing users with concrete offers. "That to me is a big 'Aha!, said Garrick Schmitt, Razorfish group vice president of experience planning and editor of the study, in an interview. "What we're finding is that with Facebook and Twitter, marketers are assuming some deeper dialogue, but what's really going on is -- people want deals."
Of those who follow a brand on Twitter, for example, 44% said access to exclusive deals is the main reason. And on Facebook and MySpace, 37% cited special deals as the main reason they have "friended" a brand. The report points to companies such as Starbucks, which has amassed nearly 5 million fans and soared to the top of Facebook brand pages by offering coupons for free pastries and ice cream.
Whole Foods, meanwhile, leads brands on Twitter with more than 1.5 million followers by promoting weekly specials and shopping tips. Razorfish identified customer service as the other key driver of consumer interaction in social media, with 33% friending a brand on Facebook and MySpace for that purpose, and 24% on Twitter. Companies such as Comcast, Zappos and Virgin have all gotten high marks for using the latter as a customer relations management (CRM) tool.
The report also draws a direct link between brand engagement online and sales. Of those surveyed, 64% had made their first purchase from a company as a result of a digital interaction -- such as through a Web site, microsite, mobile coupon or email. Nearly all (97%) said a digital brand experience had influenced whether they went on to buy a product or service from that marketer.
"Consumers are not only want to engage with brands, but engaging with brands is having an inordinate effect on affinity for brands and the likelihood to purchase," said Schmitt. Among the factoids on online interaction in the report:
•40% have friended a brand on Facebook or Twitter
•77% have watched a commercial or video ad on YouTube with some frequency
•73% have posted a product or brand review on sites such as Amazon, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter
•70% have participated in brand-sponsored contests or sweepstakes
To retain and add customers, Schmitt stressed that marketers need to shift focus from brand awareness and impressions to creating campaigns that drive people to make purchases and spread the word about products and services they use to friends.
That can cut both ways, of course. Sixty-five percent of survey participants said they had been influenced by a digital interaction with a brand, both positively and negatively. "A premium brand may not come out with a premium digital experience, and that could change someone's perception," said Schmitt.
Nonetheless, companies neglecting or underestimating digital marketing risk at this stage risk looking "as if they've shown up to a cocktail party in sweatpants," according to the Razorfish report. "Invariably, consumers will choose to converse with a savvier -- and hopefully more stylish -- partner." Or one simply willing to offer them a better deal.