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Social media: Why marketers must tread carefully

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14th Feb 2013
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Consumers claim they don’t want marketing in their social media, yet many admit they have engaged with brands on networks. This discrepancy means brands must proceed with caution, says Andy Wood.

Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, social media has established such a powerful presence in every aspect of modern life that few businesses can afford to put off developing a strategy to deal with it. For companies and brands negotiating a constantly changing consumer landscape, social media holds opportunities and risks alike and needs to be handled with care.
Recent research from GI Insight reveals that 75% of more than 1,000 British consumers surveyed belong to at least one social networking site and that the overwhelming majority of these visit once a week or more. So it is understandable that many brands view social media as a powerful medium through which to access a wide swathe of consumers. Whether consumers want to be reached in this way is a different question altogether, and companies need to be wary of alienating their customers by adopting a misguided strategy.
The commercial opportunities presented by social networking sites are clear and enticing. They allow brands to extend their reach through a new, phenomenally effective form of word of mouth whereby consumers share their opinions on a product or brand with others in their social network, meaning that a personal endorsement can go viral in minutes.
However, companies that view this tempting prospect as an invitation to approach consumers with commercial messaging on social networking sites may live to regret it. According to GI Insight’s research, 81% of consumers would be seriously put off a brand or company if it tried to communicate with them directly through social media, other than via their newsfeed. That is not a risk firms can afford to take, since the nature of social networking sites means that a criticism or complaint can travel just as fast as a positive recommendation.
The research shows that consumers take a hard line when it comes to unwelcome communications from brands. If they must be exposed to commercial messaging on social media, nearly all of the consumers surveyed – 92% – are adamant that it should be kept separate from their interactions with friends. And fully 82% of the respondents who use social media say they don’t want to see these networks ‘invaded’ by advertising or commercial messaging at all. The risk of alienating customers and prospects through what they consider intrusive communications is all too real, and should persuade marketers to take a cautious approach.
Tread carefully
However, the picture is more complicated than these findings suggest. While respondents to the survey may have a negative gut reaction towards commercial messaging on social media sites, their actual behaviour tells a different story and exposes something of a disconnect between what consumers say and what they do. The majority of those who are active on social media – 64% – have in fact invited interactions with brands or companies on the sites they use by ‘liking’ or ‘friending’ their pages, and 68% of these people are subsequently happy to receive personalised commercial messages from the companies they have endorsed.Many brands, unsurprisingly, have recognised the power of this technique in engaging consumers. Indeed, the effectiveness of brand pages on social networking sites is illustrated by the fact that many such pages now routinely attract a bigger audience of potential customers than their corresponding websites.
Companies do still need to tread carefully when communicating with the consumers who have liked their page, however, since according to the research 49% of them have later undone this move out of irritation at the volume of messages they are receiving. Nevertheless, there is evidently a role for social media to play within an integrated customer communications strategy. Just because consumers may play it cool when it comes to their relationship with brands on social networking sites, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want a relationship at all.
The crucial message for companies is clear: in the world of social media, people are determined to engage with businesses on their own terms. The research indicates that consumers are happy to interact with and receive communications from brands as long as they are in control of the situation – as soon as they feel that a line has been crossed, it is difficult to win back their trust. For the firms that stay on the right side of the divide, social networking sites present an opportunity to gather invaluable information on consumer attitudes to their brand – although still only at an aggregate level, as the mechanisms (including the permissions) do not yet exist to capture social media data on an individual basis.
Social media has tremendous potential as a marketing platform, but primarily as part of a wider mix of communication channels. As other commentators have noted, there remains a basic disparity between what people are doing on social media and what marketers want from them. Instead of focusing on what they need from consumers, it might therefore be more productive for marketers to align what they are doing on social media sites with what people want from brands and companies in order to stand the best chance of making the most of the enormous commercial potential represented by users of social networks.
What is more, social media is only one of a number of trends changing the face of the consumer landscape. Any company that wants to stay ahead of the game needs to plan with the mobile customer in mind, as consumers increasingly browse and buy on their smartphones and tablets. It is therefore more important than ever to take the time to build a relationship with customers that spans a wide variety of channels and devices.
Companies must use all the information gleaned from more traditional methods of marketing communications – direct mail, email, SMS and phone – so that they have access to the data they need in order to target customers and prospects through the right channel, at the right time, with a commercial message that will be welcomed. An unsolicited approach to consumers on social media sites will only drive them away, as the research makes clear, but an intelligent strategy that incorporates a variety of different channels – including social networks – will help companies build a fully entrenched relationship with their customers, gaining their confidence in the process.
If a firm can establish a multi-channel, real-world brand relationship with the consumer, which in turn can be strengthened with active social media users by establishing a presence on their favoured social networks, the potential of this space for marketing is more likely to be realised. Once a broader, more entrenched relationship and a degree of trust in the company or brand is established, then the consumer may be ready to open up more in the social media space and at some point even provide individual data – on their own terms, of course.
Andy Wood is managing director of customer insight firm GI Insight.

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