In this instalment of the Interview Series we speak with some of Australia’s most shrewd contributors to and shapers of the brave new world of social media. In the first of a two-part article, I ask our experts about the difficulties at the heart of making social media work for organisations, as well as the best and the worst of social media in 2016.
When you think of social media, a couple of platforms probably come instantly to mind. Facebook and YouTube are likely high on your list. One of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat probably go straight into your top three.
What do they all have in common?
They were all established as online places to share stuff (for want of a more technical term) with friends, former classmates and acquaintances.
Today, though, because each has become so immensely popular, and because organisations (particularly commercially motivated ones) want to be where lots of people are, they’re being used by businesses, brands and corporations for what (you could argue) they weren’t initially set up for.
I asked our experts whether this – trying to connect a ‘brand’ with a person – was still one of the big struggles for organisations on social media, even though it’s been several years since social marketing hit the mainstream.
“...The key is for brands to realise that the brand can be a person...”
Paul Rhodes says that most organisations have come a long way in this regard.
“The key is for brands to realise that the brand can be a person,” he says.
“Every brand has a personality which can be brought to life as the voice of the brand to enable a person-to-person conversation with consumers.”
From Samantha Puma’s perspective, that conversation is neither easy nor necessarily natural. Consumers, she says, are savvier and far less interested in embracing brands than a lot of company pages give them credit for.
“Social media communities don’t actually think of the brand as a person.”
“The benefit of setting up a brand persona or tone is that it gives you consistency. If you're consistent, you become trustworthy. But having a great personality isn't the goal really; you have to add value.
“People typically don’t want to engage with brands, no matter how lovely their personality is. People will, however, invite a brand page into their newsfeeds if it adds value to their lives.”
Frederique Bros says that although businesses tend to understand the value of social media and of interacting with their customers, a large proportion haven’t got that voice that Rhodes is talking about perfected.
“Many are still learning how to communicate with [customers] over social media, particularly without looking as though they are trying too hard. I guess this is why many companies are investing in bringing in a Digital Marketing Manager or Social Media strategist to help them.”
While some are still learning, others are making bold and sophisticated moves on platforms like Twitter and Facebook – sometimes daily. But for every funny, timely and completely safe quip about pop culture (see the Booktopia tweet below), there are many that are either ill-considered, hugely controversial or just plain offensive.
After Prince died earlier this year, for example, numerous multinational companies took to social media to link their brand to the entertainer’s death. We hear a lot about “joining the conversation”, but where does a genuine discussion start and brazen self-promotion begin?
Is social media encouraging exploitation of events that were once seen as off limits for commercial gain?
Rhodes says brands need to find a happy medium.
“It’s about achieving the right balance in terms of the amount of branded content but also how it’s used in social.
“For example, if a brand has a distinct colour, the content may bring this to life as a cue to the brand, without actually mentioning the brand.”
Bros doesn’t see quite so large a grey area and believes that businesses have to be incredibly careful about how they use social media in situations such as these.
“It’s a big marketing mistake to use the tragedy of Prince’s death and [to] take advantage of the social media buzz.
“Sharing opinions in order to get some ‘free’ exposure is appalling, particularly when these companies use their logo to pay respects. People are not stupid… they will quickly judge those companies.”
Puma agrees and says that although marketers are now an accepted part of the social media landscape, as soon as they overstep some widely accepted unwritten rules, they’re quickly rebuffed.
“...Setting up a social media account isn’t a free ticket to every conversation within the medium..."
“Setting up a social media account isn’t a free ticket to every conversation within the medium. Riding the coattails of a tragedy is a faux pas regardless of how tactfully you think you do it.”
“Social media users can be critical and highly suspicious of a brand’s motivations – and will see through thinly veiled marketing ploys. As a social media marketer you need to ask yourself ‘Am I actually adding anything to this conversation, or am I obviously exploiting this occasion for my own benefit?’”
That’s the extreme example of businesses doing social (arguably) badly, so what about when brands get it right. What’s the secret and who are the ones doing it best at the moment?
“Doing it well involves understanding the role of social for the brand,” explains Rhodes.
“Some brands use social as part of their customer service efforts; others may use social to portray an area of expertise and favour a particular channel that enables them to achieve this – for example, Twitter.”
Rhodes says that many of the brands he works with at Channel T use social media to reach people –the job that traditional media has always done – and to engage them “around the rational and emotional benefits and values of the brand”.
He uses as an example one of the companies he works with (who he’d prefer not to name) – a major consumer brand.
“This company does a great job of bringing to life the characteristic values of the brand: mateship, quirkiness, etc., whilst occasionally talking about the different ways people consume the product. They will use media to amplify content beyond their current fan base.”
For any organisation to successfully make use of social media platforms, Rhodes, says, content needs to create what he calls “a value exchange with the consumer”. A social media manager needs to ask “[W]hat is it about our content that is really worth looking at from a consumer’s perspective?”
“If a brand adopts a consumer lens – ‘Would I care, would I share?’ - this is certainly a good place to start.
“The value might be entertainment, expert information, beautiful imagery or a variety of other things depending on the brand and audience.”
“Value could be as simple as a bit of a giggle on a Friday or as significant as customer support that’s reliable and there when you need it,” she suggests.
“In exchange [the social media user] rewards you with their engagement behaviour and allows you to appear in their feed more regularly. That means your chances of creating leads and sales becomes higher.”
She shares Rhodes’ thoughts on the need to empathise with the person you’re creating content for.
“You really only have three seconds to make your pitch. You need to constantly ask yourself, if I saw what I’m posting in my own feed would I stop and read it? Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and ask ‘What’s in it for me?’”
As for an example of an organisation that is using social media well, Puma goes straight to Buzzfeed.
“The way that Buzzfeed has moved from being a publisher to being a marketer is interesting. They built a reputation for great quality content and now off the back of that content they’re marketing for McDonald’s or higher education brands or any consumer good you can think of. Because they’ve earned the right to appear in people’s news feeds.
“Buzzfeed shows you don’t need to give people War and Peace or pay people for their permission to appear in their feeds. In this case you just need to offer people quality.”
In Part 2 we cover whether there are any enduring rules in such a fast-changing medium whether any of our experts would ever recommend a client not use social media.
Thanks to Director of communications agency Channel T, Paul Rhodes; Creator and Owner of popular lifestyle and technology blog, Women Love Tech, Frederique Bros and Social Marketing Lead at Open Universities Australia, Samantha Puma. We really appreciate their time, their insights and their diverse perspectives.