NEW YORK—On June 8, in conjunction with Internet Week NY, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) hosted "What's So Special about Social Media? Breaking Down Silos," a social media council outlining how brands can use social media as an effective channel for research and marketing.
Panelists from companies such as consumer packaged goods giant General Mills, market research specialist Harris Interactive, and public relations firm Porter Novelli shared their respective companies' experiences using social media to gauge the response of new products, customer complaints, and consumer influence.
"Brands are becoming increasingly controlled by the consumer," said panelist David Witt, senior brand public relations manager at General Mills. "Sales and online conversation travel together. People gather around their passions."
Panelist Israel Mirsky, executive vice president of emerging media and technology at Porter Novelli, stated that social media has overtaken pornography as the top online industry, with 90 percent of consumers placing their trust in peer recommendations. Mirsky noted that, with the increase of Facebook fan pages and company Twitter profiles, many consumers are beginning to think of brands as "friends," placing a new pressure on companies to maintain constant contact and establish a consistent voice.
Witt encouraged the use of games and blog outreach as relationship-building tactics, advising brands to maintain politeness and professionalism despite the familiarity common within social channels. "Act like you're going into their homes," Witt suggested, "because, in fact, you are."
In addition to praising the use of social media to listen to and engage with customers, Witt spoke of the benefits of developing products and messages that "naturally lend themselves to being social." One stellar example, he said, is Yoplait's very successful "Save Lids to Save Lives" campaign, which raises funds for and awareness of breast cancer. "Breast cancer is really a part of the American psyche," Witt told the audience, adding that a social component accompanies many cause programs.
According to Mirsky, an enterprise is only receiving a full data set from social media efforts if, in addition to combing the Internet for its corporate name, a company also searches misspellings and colloquialisms for brands and products that might be floating through cyberspace. Mirsky also advocated using social media to better understand a customer's real-life experiences with certain store locations, identifying the locations generating either positive or negative feedback.
"Those very social experiences must be prioritized," Mirsky said.
The risks involved in embracing social media are real, Witt warned. To combat a sudden barrage of social-media negativity
Witt cited Nestlé's Facebook disaster in mid-May as a prime example. It's equally critical to integrate corporate social media activity with traditional public relations and to develop a digital plan for synergistic support.
Lynne d Johnson, senior vice president of social media at the ARF and moderator of the panel, asserted that social media is helping companies become "chief storytellers"—and that communicating their own stories helps establish the narrative that accompanies their brands. Johnson echoed Witt's sentiment, however, that many companies are still learning as they go and that there aren't any experts yet in the field of social media.
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