NEW YORK — Marketing executives from successful global brands gathered under one roof last week because things are changing. The economy, the Web, and consumers are changing, which means marketers must alter their brand messaging to keep up and stay relevant. The event — "Brand Exposure: Practical Strategies in Social Media" — educated marketers from companies such as Chanel, MTV, Condé Nast, and American Express about jumping into the social media pool. The session ran in conjunction with New York's Internet Week, a festival of events and conferences celebrating the Internet industry and community.
As the event got under way, Faris Yakob (@faris on Twitter), chief technology officer and strategist with McCann Erickson, one of the country's oldest and largest advertising networks, confessed he's not a huge fan of the phrase "social media." It's a bit redundant, he said, since media itself is inherently social.
Regardless of the terminology, though, Yakob told attendees that the key to engaging with customers on the social Web is being nice. We live in a gift economy, Yakob said, which revolves around what he called the "give and take." (Author Tara Hunt calls it The Whuffie Factor, which happens to be the title of her new book; see our upcoming July issue for an interview with her and a closer look at the social currency known as "whuffie.")
Here are Yakob's five steps toward social media greatness:
- Listen: Conversation is a balance. There's tons of value in just listening to consumers. After all, Yakob said, "We as an industry spend a vast quantity on market research to ask consumers what they do." The trouble, he added, is that "people don't know what they do." Let listening be your foray into a consumer's thoughts and motivations.
- Respond: Once upon a time, marketers flung messages toward consumers and then waited for cash registers to light up. These days, brands have a new task -- responding and conversing with consumers. As customer service becomes more responsive, Yakov noted, the content of those responses becomes critical. With social media, most of what you say is public and forever findable.
- Nurture: Determine what your brand can do for the community, and how it can contribute. Many brands are inherently social and have community aspects already built in. In those cases, don't waste time trying to amass community members -- simply go where those people already are. Yakob quoted Facebook's creator Mark Zuckerberg as having once said, "Communities already exist."
- Create social objects: "The key is to pull people together with something to do," Yakob said. Give consumers a reason for engaging. He cited a powerful quote from M.I.T. program director and author Henry Jenkins: "I don't have to control the conversation to benefit from their interest."
- Be transparent: Brands that lie will be found out, Yakob said, referencing the scandal involving paid reviews for Belkin.
"We [as marketers] think about campaigns, but this is about commitment," Yakob said. "It's a new way to do business."
One of those new ways to consider: Successful social media strategies don't happen overnight. Building upon what Yakob said in his presentation, Ian Schafer (@ischafer on Twitter) the chief executive officer of interactive marketing agency Deep Focus, said, "It takes time not only to execute on that strategy, but it takes time to change the DNA of an organization."
Schafer used an interesting metaphor in describing the social media phenomenon. We are moving away from storytelling, Schafer said, and into fan fiction. Storytelling, which was once based on buying and selling impressions in a scalable way, is fading out. Now consumers are saying, "We loved this story so much we want to tell our own stories based on your characters."
"Buying and selling impressions…that got us by for a very long time," Schafer said. Now, though, old media is evolving into something interactive. Platforms are the new Web sites and community forums are the new megaphones. Schafer told the crowd to think of a brand as a guest at a party. If your brand dresses up in a ridiculous costume that doesn't suit its personality, the other partygoers will talk -- or worse, they may not recognize the brand at all. Brands have to be true to themselves. Also, they can't simply crash the party, Schafer said -- they have to host it, creating experiences that give people a reason to keep coming back.
Paul Worthington, the head of strategy for brand consultancy Wolff Olins, told attendees that the reason we have brands in the first place is for competitive advantage. What's challenging is that consumers quickly make their minds up about a brand — and it's very difficult to alter that impression.
Social media, however, can boost a brand's influence, and Worthington had at the ready five of his own tips for social media activity:
- Listen: Hire someone to listen to the action, use simple tools for monitoring, and pay attention to the comments to get a better idea what your customers are saying.
- Be comfortable with ambiguity: "People are going to say good stuff and bad stuff and things you can't figure out," Worthington noted. "Your job isn't to manage that stuff, it's to organize it." He added that companies should beware of "analysis paralysis," in which a company freaks out because of negative things being said and as a result decides to ignore social media, pretending it doesn't exist.
- Filter through your purpose: Take what Worthington referred to as "The Five-Person Test": Ask five employees in your company to tell you what your brand is about. If all five tell a similar story, you're OK; if not, you're in trouble. Worthington said to think in terms of principles -- not rules. "Everyone talks about Zappos[.com]," Worthington said. "The reason why is [that Zappos.com executives] actually believe in customer service. Because they fundamentally believe in it, guess what? When in a social media environment, it all works."
- Influence, don't control: You can't dictate the conversation. You just have to be there.
- Be generous: An apology can be a powerful thing, Worthington said. He added that consumers also love a behind-the-scenes view of a brand. Stuff that your company may think of as useless may be valuable in a consumer's eyes. In order to truly be generous, he added, a company must like its customers more than the customers like the company.
"Everybody talks about how social media humanizes brands," Worthington conveyed. "What's also interesting is how it should humanize customers for the brand." In other words, stop seeing dollar signs and let social media show you the person behind the purchase.
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