Social Media's the Little Engine That Can Build Awareness

Here Are Six Reasons Why It Will in 2010

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
Remember the children's story "The Little Engine That Could"? It told of how the big shiny engines were not up to the task of getting up over the hill to deliver the toys to the kids in time for the holidays. Instead, despite the skeptics, it was the little engine in an act of pure will, that kept telling itself, "I think I can, I think I can," who was able to get over the big hill to get the job done.

In some ways, social media is like that little engine (and I use the term social media in its broadest sense to encompass digital and social media). Everyone is playing with social media, but there is a deeply held perception that social media lacks mass audience reach, measurability and depth to get the job done. This perception fuels the debate of whether digital agencies are "ready to lead," which as been a hot topic even within this very forum. Some digital agencies contend that social media is mature enough to be the leading vehicle whereas big agencies stay true to the law of large numbers that traditional media reliably delivers.

But the debate about who should lead seems rather irrelevant, because the key concern should be what will work to get over that "awareness hill" that every advertiser must scale to achieve business results. Is the little social media engine ready to scale the big hill?

"I think it can" and here's why.

When social media exploded on the scene (and I think that's a fair characterization), it garnered attention because it held the promise of microtargeting in combination with a new level of engagement that one-way traditional advertising could never duplicate. No one doubted the value of reaching people in these highly engaged environments, but no one really knew how to do it efficiently en masse. Large agencies operated within the traditional ad model that delivered numbers while digital agencies tended to rely on the "viral" nature of their tactics to deliver large numbers. That approach was too hit-and-miss to satisfy most businesses and rightfully so.

This is why, until now, social media has not captured a larger share of big advertisers' budgets -- it seems oxymoronic that social media's microtargeting capability can ever deliver mass audiences.

But like our little engine, I believe 2010 will be the year where the social media finally says "I think I can" to deliver large audiences because the technology pieces are coming together to create the formula for audience reach, measurability and interactivity that yield intent and business results. There is a new maturity in this space as represented, for example, by marketers who now understand that thousands of Twitter followers has no direct relevance to effectiveness or that Facebook alone can not launch campaigns.

Here's how the social media engine can be used to deliver mass audiences efficiently:

  • Think about creating "content campaigns" to drive a focused message using a multichannel approach, e.g video, mobile marketing, social networks and even traditional media. This approach puts the value on content as an audience builder but in a very strategic way. And to help content campaigns along, there are innovative new technology companies, like WebCollage, that offer content syndication and management services to make this task very efficient on a large scale.
  • Tap into the power of your customer service organization to be your social-media front-line soldiers. It is one of the most powerful ways to achieve mass reach within current organizational resources. JetBlue is a great example here as they make it a point to respond to every tweet within minutes.
  • Create mobile apps to propel new interactions while allowing you to bake in the viral looping element. Gap Style Mixer is a great example; the app gets you in-store discounts while letting you share the discounts with friends.
  • Use behaviorally appropriate ad networks as the "carpet layer" of a social-media campaign to deliver large number of impressions similar to the old fashioned GRP (gross rating points) of TV. But to ensure that impressions deliver interactivity, weave in a diversity of behavioral targeting opportunities and retargeting programs from companies like FetchBack or SearchIgnite (this is where you re-present ad an to a target who did not respond the first time).
  • Adapt real-world social networks to extend the reach of your social media campaigns. One innovative company in this space is called HouseParty, which allows people to host real world parties for product sampling (think Tupperware parties or Avon Ladies). This company cleverly utilizes social media so they can deliver large scale numbers quickly and efficiently.
  • Introduce new tools to measure social media that focus on engagement, interactivity and intent. One great example is a company called Nuconomy, which provides new tools to understand how interactivity drives intent and sales.
As in our story, when the little engine scaled over the hill, it gleefully said "I thought I could, I thought I could." Perhaps 2010 will be the year when the social media is able to say the same.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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