Brands and consumers are now in dynamic conversation. Of that there is no doubt. The polarity of the conversation has shifted too as social tools have allowed consumers to become producers, publishers, distributors and curators of content that impacts brand narratives. The onus then falls on brands to adjust and respond in meaningful and effective ways. The question is, are they capable?
Obviously brands can distribute their own content, reply to blog posts or tweets, establish crisis management protocols, and initiate cause marketing campaigns. Each are effective strategies for consumer engagement. But as the marketplace becomes more fragmented into a growing number of micro-platforms and communities, brands must become not just active listeners but skilled conversationalists. What does this mean?
A skilled conversationalist must be equally adept at engaging different audiences in different environments. Leading brands may now becoming comfortable on twitter and Facebook, but as we see with the recent arrival of Quora, a question and answer platform, or a mobile photo-sharing applications like Instagram, brands must now wade into conversations taking places in different formats among smaller, self-defined groups.
For example, Semil Shah suggests in TechCrunch that brands could have links to their Quora topic page on their homepage to interact with consumers asking questions. On the flipside, Quora users could engage around a topic and create a situation in which brands would have no choice but to respond publicly.
The task ahead for brands is getting more difficult in direct proportion to the more nuanced the social web is becoming. This demands that they be more technological savvy, nimble, resourceful and commited to maintaining a consistent and recognized brand personality within multiple conversations across a growing number of platforms so that the sum of the brand perception exceeds the parts.
To get there brands need to upgrade their commitment (in terms of both time and bodies) to social listening and engagement. They need to establish a Social Business Unit (explained in detail by the Dachis Group here.) They need to internally monitor and manage how their brand will interact across specific text, video, photo or multi-media platforms.
This dizzying array of options is one of the main reasons brands must become media and content producing companies. They cannot simply create TV, print, radio or banner ads as in the past and plug it into the existing broadcast system. Tech savvy is fast becoming social savvy. As Brian Solis explains, brands that fail to embrace these roles and neglect to commit time, people and planning to them, are setting themselves up for failure. The technology, tools and expertise to help them is available. But first they must commit to relearning the art of conversation specific to the social web.
Do you believe brands will expand their conversational skills to emerging technology? Or do you believe brands will insist on being echo chambers for themselves?
Last week the New York Times reported on the possibility of cheating in the Pepsi Refresh fundraising competition for non-profits. Pepsi assured participants that the most rigorous technology to ensure the integrity of the process, but as with all technology that is by its very nature neutral, abuse is always a possibility. Still, the suggestion that this might occur is particularly jarring in the context of such an inspiring and breakthrough campaign. But the issue at hand is far larger than any one brand, competition or individual.
Over the coming years we will continue to see brands that engage in social media disingenuously, either by doing a better job of masking their true motives or because their efforts are little more than window dressing.
We will continue to see advertising agencies that engage with social media on behalf of their brands only to protect their own client territory rather than trying to genuinely engage with consumers to build brand awareness and profits for their clients.
We will continue to see consumers looking for ways to use technology to their sole advantage.
We will continue to see technology specialists treating the connective tissue between millions of people as little more than an opportunity to bombard them with sales offers or spam.
While this is a concern, it is no cause to be disheartened. The power of social media is not limited to its most obvious abuses or trivial uses. Rather, the only thing that’s ever positively changed our world is collective action based on shared values, and social media and technologies represent a unique opportunity to do this again on an unprecedented scale.
With each iteration of social, mobile and gaming technology, we will see its equally rapid abuse or cynical exploitation. Yet what’s important is that those that have experienced and believe in the power of magnified human connection demonstrate and champion its meaningful use.
We find ourselves at a unique moment in history in which the intersection between social media and social change can be potentially transformative. This can only happen if we celebrate the positive application of new technologies, reward brands truly dedicated to social change, and support them using our purchasing power and social influence. Abuses will occur but that does not diminish the opportunity before us to work together as brands and consumers partnering to build a better world.
Do you believe social media can be instrumental in building a better world? If so, how and why?
With the never-ending stream of new social technologies, apps and platforms rolling out every day, its easy to get lost in the minutiae of social media. Yet for there to be effective change, especially within large, top-down, hierarchical institutions, a company must have an over-arching understanding of the new role it has to play.
If a brand wants to build social communities, capital and influence, it must become the chief celebrant of its community, not its celebrity. This simple shift in approach unlocks enormous transformative potential for brands. Here’s why:
1. They spend less time talking and more time listening.
2. They start treating customers as living, breathing people.
3. They invest time and energy in relationships as well as profits.
4. They expand from a sales into a service mentality.
5. Their community can work for them and buy from them.
6. Their story becomes their community’s story.
7. Customers become emotionally invested in the company’s success.
8. Relationships start being built around shared values, as well as dollars value.
9. They automatically shift from a push/broadcast to a pull/social strategy.
10. Emotional connections with customers becomes natural rather than forced.
To achieve this a brand must undergo a re-visioning process ideally led by management. In doing so, they must re-frame how their products and services can be positioned to enable and celebrate the success of their customers and community rather than solely seeking profit or to indulge the vanity of their brand personality. If this sounds like broad strokes, they are. Such simple, broad intentions are the filters that will inform the details of social engagement, especially for large organizations.
Brands stand to benefit from such a shift in several ways, the most important of which is the customer goodwill, loyalty and, ultimately, the profits they will earn.
Leading brands already embracing this new dynamic. Nike with its open source Environmental Design Tool that benefits the entire sports apparel industry; P&G’s ‘Click for Water’ Blogivation campaign that empowers bloggers to help those desperately in need of clean water; Walmart’s Sustainability Index that has the potential to positively transform entire industries and supply chains; and Pepsi’s Refresh Project that helps regular people realize the ways they hope to improve the world.
Obviously such a reframing of thinking is difficult to adopt in the boardroom and even more difficult to execute company-wide. But as social media, technologies and business continue to change commerce, there will be those companies that leverage it to their advantage and those that it will destroy. For proof, CEO’s and shareholders need only look to the changes in the music, entertainment, publishing and, most recently, marketing industries. The time for brands to shift their thinking is now. The market has already changed.
Do you think a sufficient number of brands have integrated the implications of social business for their business models? Or do you think social business will peak and fade away?
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