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Selfies as a marketing tool: Inspired or insane?

17th Jan 2014
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It might be argued by its staunchest critics that the act of taking a ‘selfie’ is a narcissistic, sign-of-the-ages waste of data, for kids with too much time on their hands. But that hasn’t stopped marketers tapping into this social phenomenon to try and build new customer interactions and experiences.

Given official recognition by the Oxford Dictionary late last year, the rising use of the selfie, both the action and the word, has triggered a plethora of expert opinion about its social, psychological and ethical worth to mankind.

None more so than when Barrack Obama, David Cameron and Helle Thorning posed in front of (or is it behind?) the Danish prime minister’s iPhone at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in December, and the world looked on in both horror and intrigue. The New York Post called the act “the greater global calamity of Western decline”, while the Guardian described it as “selfishness of the most superficial kind” and the finest example of the "me generation". It led to widespread panic. Why can’t we stop taking so many photos of ourselves?! How dare people use #funeralselfie as a hashtag on Twitter?! 

The counter arguments, however, came from those who saw the selfie as a light-hearted way of connecting with a wider audience. ‘Felfies’ (farmers taking selfies, of course…) emerged as a comical extension of the term, and with it a study into the greater sociological benefits of being able to use such social media practices to share and converse in the remotest of places.  And actor James Franco wrote an article in the New York Times that explained why, in a world where increased attention is key, the selfie provided the perfect method for people, and brands, to promote themselves.

"Social media is inherently self-promotional, so these types of campaigns capitalise on the instinct to self-brand and share," says social media expert, Sue Reynolds.

"It’s a clever way to profit from an already popular trend."

Selfies and marketing

Marketers have known this for a while. Selfie campaigns are already widespread among big organisations. Turkish Airlines launched the ‘Selfie Shootout’ on YouTube to widespread acclaim, while Johnson & Johnson encouraged customer engagement through its ‘Donate a Photo’ campaign, which gives $1 to good causes for every photo people upload to its site.  

Smaller businesses are getting in on the act too. An example of this is former UK Young Hairdresser of the Year, Rebecca Hunt, who recently set up her own salon in Southampton, Hampshire and is now using selfies as a medium to encourage her customers to upload pictures of themselves and their new hairstyles on social channels, in exchange for free hair products as prizes.   

“Clients are constantly bombarded with glossy images of hair in the media that are often digitally enhanced,” Rebecca Hunt said, in explaining the reasons for running her selfie campaign.

“This imagery is often seen as unachievable, however a photograph taken by a genuine client portrays a certain honesty that people can relate to. 

“It was incredibly simple and completely cost-free and we gained a number of new clients as a direct result of the competitions. Due to its success we now run a monthly campaign.” 

It is estimated that in 2014 the number of selfies being taken could exceed 250bn, so clearly marketers have the right to sense an opportunity. But what should your business do if it wants to pull together a successful and engaging selfie campaign? Carolyn Blunt, owner of training provider Real Results and social business expert, believes the answer lies in having a clear understanding about why selfies might tie in with your brand:

“Selfies can combine humour and reality for social media campaigns, in particular when other marketing tools can’t; however they have to be used in the right way to be successful and shouldn’t be undertaken without careful planning.

“The first thing to consider is your audience. Will they be aware of selfies; will they appreciate this new digital marketing tool?

“Secondly, ensure that there is a strategy behind this. Don’t just let your marketing team embark on a ‘selfie’ campaign without strict guidelines.

“Thirdly, although strategy and guidelines are essential, the selfies still need to be natural and real. Go for the friendly angle, as a friendly face with your product in hand could be one of the best endorsements you could have. So make sure that you use great brand ambassadors to take selfies with your product, to ensure the images are shared as much as possible across social media.”

Backing up this point, lists ‘Contests’, ‘Engagement’ and ‘Human Interest’ as the three core reasons for running a selfie customer campaign, but also states that 90% of the time, businesses should avoid even touching the idea with a proverbial bargepole, claiming the concept is far too risky.

Selfie aware

Ben Austin, CEO for Absolute Digital Media, is a little more pragmatic about the perils involved, however. Businesses just need to tread carefully, he says:   

“Naturally of course there are risks to a selfie marketing campaign, just as there would be with any social media marketing. Put simply if you’re getting involved in a trend that people have strong opinions about, you’ll always be vulnerable to negative content, but with this brings the potential for far better reach.

“If you are planning to run competitions or discounts for those who post a selfie of themselves with your product, your biggest concern should be making sure you aren’t alienating the slightly less forward members of your audience. #GivingTuesday is a great example of an organisation that has flipped this concept on its head, encouraging social media users to post “unselfies”, using images highlighting a good cause they wish to support.

“Some sectors lend themselves particularly well to this; everyone loves a pretty cupcake for example, but equally the latest fad of taking selfies at funerals has understandably gathered quite a lot of criticism. Take a moment to consider whether you could in fact be doing more harm than good before you take the plunge!”

“Selfies are a big trend right now; they are indeed a product of the times,” Carolyn Blunt adds, in relation to the potentially negative backlash a selfie campaign could lead to.

“So, make sure you use them while they are current and take them out of your marketing plans as soon as they become tired or when negativity starts to overtake the feel good factor surrounding them.

“By remembering to plan thoroughly and always checking the backgrounds where your selfies are taken, your digital marketing campaign should be a success and if integrated into your marketing mix could gain the lead on your competitors.”

So, despite all the negative attention, it’s evident a selfie campaign shouldn’t be instantly dismissed as a ridiculous marketing idea, regardless of your industry and your customer base. Done the right way it can be a method for engaging and connecting people to your brand, while also building a more refined experience into your social media channels. Just be careful what you use as a hashtag. And try to stay away from encouraging any narcissism at funerals.     


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