Behind The Numbers: Whose Brand Is It, Anyway?

Consumers hold more of the chips in a social economy

Your brand is not your own anymore. It belongs to consumers, to social media and, frankly, to whoever is talking about you. In fact, the growing importance of social media is giving rise to a new type of marketing that Shiv Singh, the vice president and social media lead at Razorfish and author of the just-released book Social Media Marketing for Dummies dubbed, in a recent report, "Social influence marketing."

Social influence marketing is about the role consumer-generated media plays in purchase decisions. In a survey of 1,000 people - including a mix of active social media users and the general population - Razorfish found that 71 percent of respondents shared a product, service or restaurant recommendations with others on the Web at least every few months, while 29 percent do so every few weeks.

At first blush, those figures suggest a big opportunity for brands in social marketing. That's true, but brands also should consider this stat: 62 percent of respondents said they do not actively seek out opinions about brands.

"Conversations about brands, products and services are increasingly woven into the interactions of social networks as a means to connect with others, and these conversations have great influence even though people aren't consciously asking about brand opinions," writes Singh.

"Furthermore, consumers do not always realize how much influencing they are doing, and how much they are being influenced, when they have conversations about brands across social platforms."

Social influence marketing is a subtle thing. It should be done with an especially light touch since it has become so influential. eMarketer found that for 18 to 34-year-olds, social media has become the second-most important marketing form, behind only recommendations from friends and family.

How can brands play along in an authentic way?
"As brands are being defined in real time by an increasingly vocal audience, brand management will require greater transparency, access and response than ever before to connect with consumers in the social space, and to provide consumers with a return on emotion to maintain affinity and loyalty," writes Singh. "Traditional top-down branding will become more and more impotent as social media grows."

He suggests brands learn to socialize with consumers by participating directly in messages with them and providing value in the exchange. That can be through insight and expertise, not just by offering a 15-percent-off coupon. They should monitor social forums, and when they participate they should keep up the momentum by responding to queries and joining the conversation.

Marketers should also develop their "social media voices," says Singh. "These voices will need to be more engaging, personal, humble, authentic and participatory than traditional advertising messages."

Most of all, remember the basic rules of conversation apply to social media, says Jeff Rosenblum, founding partner of interactive agency Questus, who recently completed a social media study. "It comes down to this: you slow down, listen, understand. Then do something. You would never successfully barge into a room and turn the place upside down. So don't do that on social media either."

Brands should also seek out the social environment that's right for them and it won't always be Facebook, he says. It could be a small, niche social community or even one the brand creates.

"What brands should be doing is understanding the consumer behavior and trying to facilitate that behavior," says Rosenblum.

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