Sunday, February 14, 2010

The real cost of free social media tools

Originally published in Campaign Brief December 09. I have been a little lax in my posting recently.

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It comes as no surprise that Facebook has reached over 300 million users this year. Twitter has hit the scales at around 50 million. Yet these places are no longer simply for the warm and fuzzy feelings of catching up with old high school sweethearts. It seems every man and his dog (and yep, become an online fan of Lassie today) are using free software and a myriad of blogs to fight for a cause, stir up some nostalgia or to push their brand deeper into the realm of social media.

However, just because the tools are free, doesn't mean it's going to cost nothing.

Similarly, signing up for a free blog or Twitter and Facebook account does not sign you up for immediate success in the online social world. These seemingly effortless accounts may take less than a minute to create, but making them function as effective communications tools that amalgamate with a company's branding, marketing messages and culture takes more than time. It takes understanding, skills, experience and money.

Millions of people are tapping into social media the world over, which is at once a pro and a con. It's the kind of number to get you giddy with excitement; it certainly sounds like a tantalizing number of people to listen to what you have to say. You're probably thinking, that's at least hundreds of fans, followers and friends to learn more about our company, products and what we're all about.

However, it needs to be remembered that a company’s online presence is as real as its offline; it needs to retain its own branding and personality. Capitalizing on your daily tweets may mean initially investing a little time (and depending on your skills - creativity or hired help) to escape the rudimentary templates of free software. Designing a wallpaper, making your logo prominent and linking the account to your existing website may sound obvious, but it’s largely underrated. A recent study by global PR firm Weber Shandwick found that “fifty three percent of the Fortune100 Twitter accounts did not display personality, tone or voice”.

However, it is crucial that the underlying voice of the brand remains intact. The office tech-nerd or friend of a friend of a colleague who happens to be very web savvy cannot maintain a company’s online presence. The voice needs to come from above; the face of the company who can clearly speak the brand’s personality; with agencies providing the consultation and strategy on how to translate a traditional message into an online one.

Weber Shandwick’s study also found that many Twitter accounts seemed to have appeared simply to have an online presence. What were lacking were companies using this platform as a link to the community and demonstrating their brand as a source of information, trust and listening ears; they were not building connections with media, other business contacts or maintaining relationships.

Consulting firm Deloitte have found that Australia is lagging in the social media stakes. They recently surveyed a small section of directors from the top 200 ASX companies and found “very few knew much about it. Only one from a group of ten said it was a topic of discussion in the boardroom, yet there was unanimous agreement it should be.”

And having fans is not enough. If clicking a button to become one is the only active participation a person will have with your site, the only real prize at the end is having more fans than your competition. If fans are constantly bored with irrelevant content and not being rewarded with personal interaction for their allegiance to a brand, they may as well be nonexistent. What they see in their daily news feeds needs to keep them coming back for more – clicking through to the fan page, taking a participative approach to their following.

The flipside to this is the investment of time, intensive labour and possibly remuneration for someone to ensure the blog stays updated regularly, the tweets are relevant and not alienating, and the Facebook page is regulated and controlled. It takes an investment of dollars on the right minds to create ideas for unique ways to utilize online space. It takes allocated time each week to see these ideas through. An enthusiastic start to a weekly blog that dissipates into a spasmodically updated online blather doesn’t do much for a company’s profile. Keeping them keen is crucial – it takes nurturing, love and lots of commitment.

"Marketing across social media requires more time and attention to detail, but offers to reward brands that do it well with far more meaningful consumer interactions” says Hashem Bajwa, Director of Digital Strategy at Droga5 in New York. “Success in social media is less about building outbound messages in the form of an artifact, such as an advertisement – it's more about living systems that evolve and are linked together. This requires more time and effort than ever before" he goes on to say.

But it’s not all about hard work. A classic example of clever online strategy comes from the faces behind Movember. Turning long-term media strategy on its head, the fundraising venture for men’s health awareness lasts a three-month period from October to December, a perfect length of time to remind people of a worthy cause, create an active response and see the results at the other end. It’s quick, clean and effective without stagnating or becoming a stale message.

Reactions to new products or news from a company can be also very easy to garner. Simply look at the number of groups on Facebook that cropped up in reaction to Kraft’s grand new scheme to name its Vegemite spin-off “isnack v2.0”. The hashtag “#vegefail” spread quicker on Twitter than the product ever did. One thing is clear – public reaction is happening at lightning speed. Interestingly, Kraft’s Twitter account went virtually silent after unveiling the new name and its pride on supermarket shelves was compromised. The opportunities and repercussion from using these simple, online accounts are as limitless as the creativity of marketing minds or the passion of the people.

It may sound like social media could be the bane of a company’s integrated marketing efforts. It shouldn’t be. There are millions of people ready to listen, take part and respond. Understanding the inherent need for hiring the right kinds of creative minds to keep followers eager, and spending the time and energy on maintaining an active and creative participation on the tangled world wide web, makes it all worthwhile. It’s that old mantra of time equals money, reborn into a new era of social media. Keep ‘em keen. Make a solid investment of your time, energy and money - and see how they return.

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