Too Many Brands Stuck on Media Part of Social Media

Instead, Focus on the Nature of Brand Conversations and How to Influence Them

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"How do I think about reach and frequency in social media?"

"How do I use social media to get my brand's message out?"

Clients have asked me questions like these on a number of occasions over the past couple of years. If they are more sophisticated than most, their questions may be along the lines of "How do I use social media as part of an integrated communications plan?" or "How do I assess the ROI of social media compared with other media?"

I always get an uncomfortable feeling when I'm asked these questions.

Too many marketers still don't get what is different about social media. There are two words in "social media," but too many people are hearing just the "media" half.

In the media world (including both traditional and digital non-social media), there is an audience that is essentially passive, receiving an advertising message that has been delivered to them. While people may grumble about the incredible number of ads directed toward them over the course of a day, they generally recognize that this is part of the price they pay for viewing content of interest.

Despite tremendous effort and expense on the part of media and media-research agencies over many years, it is difficult to predict which ads will "work" in this cluttered environment and whether the audience will "hear" what we want them to about our brands.

In the social world, there is no audience; it is people talking to each other. That is what makes it "social" rather than media as we are used to thinking of it. It is inherently active, and when the topic of conversation among people is brands, it gives consumers control of what the brands are about.

Because of the lack of control in the social world, "getting your message out" in social media is an inherently flawed notion.

That is also why "counting eyeballs" that have seen something in social media about a given brand and trying to equate that with views in traditional media is an inherently flawed exercise.

Putting the emphasis on the word "social" means focusing instead on the nature of the brand conversations taking place and how to influence (not control) them.

If we can liberate ourselves from the "media mindset" and adopt a more "social mindset," we will then be able to make significant progress in understanding how to engage, how to take part in the brand conversations going on around us, and how to build relationships in this new world. It is clear, though, that we are still in the early stages of sorting this all through, and there is much to learn.

When jumping into social media, brands need to keep in mind that people will not be receptive to the old paradigm of "push the message."

TNS conducts an annual survey of consumers around the world to try to understand how people live online. The latest Digital Life survey shows some sobering yet encouraging insights as to how people view brand interactions in the social-media world:

  • Sixty percent of U.S. consumers who use social networks say that they are a place where they don't want to be bothered by companies or organizations.
  • At the same time, 45% say that social networks are a good place to find out about brands -- but 50% say that even a single negative review on a social-media site can affect their brand decisions.
  • Most people who join brand communities will do so for mercenary reasons (65% say they do so to get coupons), but many also do so to express their passion for a brand (45%).
  • Most of those who write about brands on social media say they do so to praise brands (61%), but nearly as many say they write about brands to express negative feelings (45%).

These data would suggest that brands have opportunities to find creative ways in social media to build stronger relationships, but there is risk too, as they need to overcome many people's wariness.

As everyone rushes to develop a Facebook strategy, social media represents a double-edged sword for marketers as they seek to build their brands.

Approaching it with a media mind-set may well turn off many people; letting "social be social" will be a better path to growth. The choice is ours.

Larry Friedman, Ph.D., is chief research offier at TNS, North America.
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