There's quite a discussion today regarding the impact of social media on brands. Some are claiming that our brave "marketing pioneers" who "understand" the new media can maintain control of their brands. These electronic pioneers are attempting to leverage the new tools of our era by creating:
- Facebook fan pages,
- YouTube clips,
- Twitter tweets,
But some, perhaps the more realistic, are beginning to shock their management by admitting that they "no longer own their brand image"!
While I won't suggest that brand advertising is irrelevant, it's time that we realize that social media has put consumers in charge — and that there is no turning back. It's not that corporations shouldn't keep trying to work their magic, but they need to realize that two key elements have forever changed in the communications landscape: "bandwidth" and "production capability."
For most of our lives corporations have totally owned their brands. They not only managed the design, production and distribution, but, most important, they carefully controlled awareness and brand image. Certainly consumers had face-to-face and phone conversations about their experiences with a given product or service, but in most cases reach and their ability to express themselves was limited.
Awareness and image were owned by the professionals. Corporations employed marketing teams and advertising agencies. Creative directors produced exquisite expressions of the major brands, and media planners/buyers purchased the necessary share of what was a limited supply of radio, television, newspaper, magazine and outdoor time and space. They could turn the dial up, and they could turn it down. All it took was money.
But over the past few years technology has changed things dramatically. Today the vast majority of consumers carry cell phones, most with photo capability (many able to capture digital video images). Well over 75 percent of the public has access to the Internet. We can reach out to sites like Yelp, ePinions.com, and tens of thousands of personal blogs and "suck" sites. Text messaging and email probably generate more thoughts and opinions in a few hours than in all the letters mailed in a year a decade ago.
Rather than The Big 3 television networks of yesteryear, most households now have a hundred or more viewing options. A 30-second spot on the Super Bowl, a full page in The New York Times, a gatefold in People, or roadblocking spots on ABC, CBS, and NBC haven't suddenly lost all meaning, but they can no longer dominate. The capacity — the communication "bandwidth" — has expanded to the point where it can no longer be controlled by a few powerful voices.
Further, with a few key strokes on her phone, clicks on her keyboard, or with the press of a button on her cellphone camera, any consumer can become the creator, producer, and developer of this new media. She has no need for a large corporate budget and little technical training is required. At any moment a consumer can instantly ask a question or text a distant friend (or hundreds of "followers" for that matter) about her experience with a brand. She can take and email a photo of a product failure, create and post a video on YouTube (think Domino's Pizza and United Airlines), or she can brag about a great new movie or a product she found on her personal blog.
Corporate marketers and their agency planners, creatives and production folks can certainly provide a more elegant execution, but consumers now have their own production tools and by their numbers alone they can generate much more content. If that's not enough, research indicates that consumers connecting to one another deliver greater trust and credibility than corporate sponsored advertising or Web programming.
So should brand managers and their agencies just fade into the sunset? Of course not. They still own paid mass media and it remains a critical part of the mix. But it's time to realize that brand-operated chatrooms, YouTube videos, and Facebook fan pages will only have limited impact. The power is now in the hands of literally millions of customers and consumers as the result of technological advancements, expanded communications bandwidth, and simple production tools.
Marketers will have to take a step back and try an entirely new approach if they want to build the awareness and image of their brands in social media.
About the Authors
Doug Pruden (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Terry Vavra bring extensive experience in advertising (BBDO, JWT, Kenyon & Eckhardt) and marketing research (NBC, Marketing Metrics, Ipsos) to help clients grow and manage customer word of mouth. They are principals at Customer Experience Partners.
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For the rest of the June 2010 issue of CRM magazine — our second annual Social Media Issue, this year focused on communities — please click here.