Monday, October 29

Building Brands: The Social Media Connection

There are three takeaways from a new report on social media and brand building by Forrester Research. Marketers might find them familiar. Some social media practitioners might not. But suffice to say that social might be more of a brand reinforcer than a builder, something we've said all along.

• Social media is part of brand building, but not a standalone solution.
• Social media provides the story, leveraging emotional elements.
• Social media improves the relationship with engagement and loyalty.

All three takeaways point to the same assumptions, however. Organizations have to employ social media as an effective tool or tactic and not as a magical strategy simply designed to give awareness a lift. Too many companies view social that way today. They count likes and followers instead of brand reinforcement, repeat business, and customer engagement.

One of the best lines in the report is right up front. Principal author Tracy Stokes points out that many organizations are asking the wrong question. They are asking "what is the social strategy?" instead of "how does social media change the brand strategy?" Personally, I might even ask a different one all together.

Are we living up to our brand across every connection and contact?

Among marketing leaders, most of them get part of it. Ninety-two percent believe that social media has fundamentally changed how consumers engage with brands. But what doesn't add up is that only half of all marketing professionals see their social media efforts as strategically integrated into brand plans.

Part of the challenge is simply because social media is still in its infancy. Sure, social has come into its own as a tool, with almost every marketer (B2C and B2B) seeing it as a relevant marketing tool. But what I mean when I say it is in its infancy is that the tail still wags the dog or, in other words, social media and social networks control the brand.

It's not all that different from television when it first burst onto the scene. Advertisers would walk onto the show set with a product easel and talk about the product. These advertiser cameos were often stiff and unconvincing, but consumers didn't care because nobody had done anything different.

That slowly began to change, with one of the first examples being a 10-second spot that aired before a baseball game. The commercial, without any interference (a spokesperson and easels), was pretty shabby (even for $9), but what Bulova attempted to do was establish a brand message on its terms.

It took some time for most brands to catch on. Years after Bulova, even McDonald's struggled to break away from the idea that people wanted brands to have pretend dialogue with them. McDonald's did much better when it started advertising skits in the vein of Sid and Marty Krofft.

It isn't much different than how many social media practitioners act today. They jump on a network and then adopt the platform, sometimes trying to jump into trending conversations. Brands ought to work harder establishing what consumers can expect from their presence, making sure it reinforces the brand and not just coupons and gimmicks for the favor of a connection (unless it the brand is price-point driven).

And even then, it cannot neglect that brands are established by an integrated communication strategy. The Forrester white paper delivers a few good ideas. They range from humanizing a company and creating groundswell for riskier ideas to correcting a negative image and working toward common causes. You might notice that all four of these ideas are measurable beyond awareness and attention.

What will the future look like for social media?

The topic deserves a post on its own, but some ideas are already moving full steam ahead. Forrester is looking at the unification of corporate and brand identity, connection planning (not channel planning), and tent pole events that give brands a lift as opposed to trying to deliver 24-7 messaging.

All three are good ideas. Our own research shows that offline communication is critical for most organizations. It gives the company an opportunity to talk about events before, during, and after the fact. Because these conversations directly relate to consumers on their terms, it creates more touch points — from curiosity about the event to real-time reporting to post-event conversations, which give people who didn't attend an idea of what they missed and those who did attend some fond memories.

But all of it, regardless of what is done, will share a commonality. It will all tie back to the brand. And the brand identity, although some people argue otherwise, will be established and managed by the company (not by social media). Specifically, brand managers will be charged with making sure that everything done at every level of the company keeps the brand in mind. And if it doesn't, then the organization will adjust or adopt a new brand that they can live up to.

If you are interested in the white paper, you can find it online here. One word of caution. Like many white papers, it is being offered in exchange for including your name on a lead generation list.
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