One of the biggest supposed benefits of social media has been its potential to “humanize brands.” You should know the story by now — the world of brand marketing is filled with one-way communication, where institutions fill airwaves and fiber optics with unwanted commercial messages. Social media enables brands to improve on the wasted spend of traditional messaging by allowing direct consumer engagement for business purposes.
For example, we celebrated the way JetBlue handled their Valentine’s Day crisis with adept use of social media. On the other hand, we use the same channels to complain about brands and their lack of understanding. All in all, we expect brands – and the people operating their social media accounts – to engage in personal, colloquial conversations. To act human.
However, our society has a long history of denouncing institutions: goverments, religions, corporations. Social media has empowered individuals with voices and given that consumers love to hate advertising, is it any surprise that brands, no matter how hard they try to “humanize” themselves via social media, are never allowed to succeed?
Last Wednesday, I saw many people post stories on Facebook of where they were on September 11, 2001, using the hashtag #neverforget. That day some brands – and the people operating the accounts – took to social media to acknowledge the tragic events that happened that day. I didn’t see any criticism of people’s stories or Instagram photos — but I did see plenty of criticism of the posts from brands. Most of criticism called out implicit commercialization of the tragic events of twelve years ago.
It’s difficult to know the exact intent behind each of the brand posts — commercial or not. But what’s clear is that consumers hold brands to a different standard in social media communications. For years, brands have been advised to use social media to be more “human” — but it seems to me that consumers will never let that happen, no matter how hard brands try.
China is the world’s largest digital market, with the most online users and social media participants. While brands can use many lessons learned regarding consumers and content, the unavailability of familiar channels requires marketers to better understand the nuances of China’s digital marketing and social media landscape.
China is the world’s most populated country, with over 1.3 billion inhabitants. It also maintains the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the largest by 2016. This growth has contributed to the rise of consumer classes within the country and in turn captured the attention of global brands.
As brands ramp up marketing efforts in China, they are increasingly prioritizing digital channels. The country has 560+ million internet users – more than any other country – and the average user spends more hours per week online than with TV, print, and radio combined. Despite this high amount of time spent online, adoption of major digital and social platforms in China has been limited. Many Google properties including YouTube, Blogspot, and Google+ are blocked to regular web browsing, along with Facebook, Twitter, and others. Instead, Chinese users spend their time on country-specific sites like Kaixin, Douban, and Jiepang.
But of course there are differences as well. China’s social media sites are similar to US sites and analogies can help keep things straight, but they have different capabilities and user bases. “Weibo” (微博) is Chinese for microblog, but should you use Sina, Tencent/QQ, or another? Pinterest-like sites Mogujie and Meilishuo don’t have monetization challenges, however many brands (particularly outside of the fashion industry) are struggling to find a place for these sites within their digital strategy.
And don’t forget scale: during the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, Twitter recorded almost 10 million related mentions. Sina Weibo? 119 million. The biggest day in the history of US e-commerce was Cyber Monday 2012, with an estimated record US$1.5 billion in sales across online retailers in a single day. Last year, Taobao doubled that on Singles Day (11/11), seeing US$3.06 billion in sales.
On the surface, the landscape appears similar to the rest of the world, but the details are where the differences start to matter.
Great brands need to be thinking about what’s beyond social business. R/GA is focused on functional integration and helping brands move beyond the mainstream.
Let’s face it. Great brands need to be thinking about what’s beyond social business.
You might be thinking, “Wait a second…the social business era has just begun!” And if so, you’d be correct…
Let’s rewind it back:
2003 – 2006: Early Adoption. Professionals viewed social media with curiosity and kept an eye out on the trajectory of corporate+consumer engagement. Despite early brand experiments like Randy Baseler’s Boeing blog, most companies were skeptical of the long-term impact of this emerging media/technology. However, some unlucky brands would eventually have no choice but to participate, as detractors used new outlets to broadcast their dissatisfaction – and mainstream media amplified the discontent. Early adopters including Charlene Li, Steve Rubel, and Robert Scoble explained to the world what needed to be done.
2007 – 2009: Early Majority. Brands decide to get involved. They’re getting educated, listening to consumers using new technology, rolling out internal collaboration platforms, and starting to consider how to integrate “social” into existing operations. However, as the global financial crisis caused the world to slide into the Great Recession, budgets were slashed and program momentum stalled. The silver lining to financial meltdown? Brands had to get clever with what they had on hand and also had time to think strategically about integrating social into their businesses. Thinkers like Jeremiah Owyang, David Armano, and Chris Brogan help move brands, big and small, put pieces together and move forward. I identified over 300 brands using social media marketing.
Social business certainly still has a way to go. Many brands still lack coherent strategy and tactics for coping with two-way engagement, not to mention internal change management. However, the trail has been blazed by pioneers like IBM, Coca-Cola, and Dell for others to follow. The mainstreaming of social business will continue throughout 2013, as brands focus on scaling programs externally and internally. Emerging challenges like SoMoLo (social/mobile/local) will occupy attention even further. Most approaches are focused on building four of five capabilities outlined by Umair Haque: singularity, sociality, spontaneity, and synchronicity. I see this playing out primarily in employee education and consumer engagement, with a focus on training, tools, and measurement.
But what’s beyond social business?
Solving for social at scale requires implementation of solutions for today, not tomorrow. That’s delivering on mainstreaming.
Along the way, the concept of “social business” risks losing meaning, similar to the reductive definitions placed on originally expansive concepts like BPR and CRM. Is the pinnacle of social business success equal to the presence of robust two-way communication? That’s difficult for many brands and a step forward for sure, but ultimately limiting. It’s only focused on plateauing on the top of the social media S-curve.
It’s critical that brands position themselves to participate and potentially own experience ecosystems. In a world of increasing connectedness, brands must employ a holistic point of view with regard to consumer relations, employee collaboration, and value chain management. This requires thinking through communications and how they’re aligned with products and services.
“Social” describes everything we do, but technology always underpins the change. As Deb Schultz has said: technology changes, humans don’t. The rise of social business has not been about figuring out humans – it’s been about how people and companies use new technology to communicate, transact, and entertain.
Clay Shirky crystallized what was going on with social media in his 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody.” Shirky has a new book out called “Cognitive Surplus.” Here are some of the concepts contained therein I found thought-provoking.
Clay Shirky crystallized what was going on with social media in his 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody.” Shirky has a new book out called “Cognitive Surplus.” For a summary of the book, you can read this speech transcript from a couple years ago. You can also watch this video, similar content.
Shirky’s concept certainly has, as Seth Godin puts it, “world-changing” potential. In fact, Tim O’Reilly has already pointed out how to make this a reality, imploring us to work on stuff that matters.
Beyond a straight summary, here are some of the concepts I found thought-provoking:
Media is the connective tissue of society. This is a wonderful definition of not only what we share, but also hints at why we connect and how.
Digital sharecropping. An idea that social sites create an unfair situation whereby individuals create content but platform owners get the monetary rewards. Theoretically feasible, but rare in practice.
Consumers will take control – if you let them. “If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it.” This could be for better or worse with regards to your brand.
The problem is us, not it. “Many of the unexpected uses of communications tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.” Fewer people today say they don’t get Twitter, namely because we have shifted mental models regarding how people communicate online.
Why sharing ideas works. Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives ideas from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine.” I can share ideas through this blog that do not detract from my own ideas – and in fact this community returns the value through comments, retweets, and other responses.
Culture is key. It’s how alchemy evolved into chemistry and the world ended up gaining from a greater degree of openness.
There are drawbacks to more connectivity. “Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk free, and any new opportunity requires ways to manage risk.” Moreover, “social media introduces social dilemmas into a number of environments where they didn’t previously exist.”
Building a business case may be difficult. “We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive.” Don’t limit the definition of “systems” here to IT only – think of processes and culture within ecosystems as well.
The entire last chapter focuses on starting, growing, and adapting efforts – solid advice for anyone responsible for community development. Shirky has created a wonderful outline of the what, why, and how of our society’s Cognitive Surplus – the only question left is “what now,” which can only be answered by each of us.