Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Optimization Of Social Networking Sites For Brand Building

Bhavana Ravindran, Sydenham Institute Of Management Studies, Research & Entrepreneurship Education, Mumbai

Since forever, marketers have engaged consumers in monologues, splashing advertisements that painted glorified albeit myopic versions of their brands, and left the consumer to make buying decisions depending upon the advertising prowess of the brand & frequency of ad-spends. This tilted the scales largely in favour of big companies with the financial muscle to engage in high-budget marketing campaigns.

But technology has time and again made the traditional obsolete, & the latest to take the hit is the traditional marketing ecosystem. As brands realize the growing importance of consumer engagement, “Democratic Consumerism” is the new mantra for marketers seeking innovative ways to create dialogues between consumers and brands.

Social networks in marketing
This brings us to the topic of contention - social networking & their reinforcement as powerful cost-effective marketing solutions. I say reinforcement because this is not a new-fangled fad of the internet era, but is a tried & tested successful marketing technique – be it the familiar “Friends & Family” mobile talk-plan or the Amway network marketing strategy.
Even more than a decade ago, the Journal of Marketing Research in an article on networks in marketing (Iacobucci & Hopkins, 1992) & Philip Kotler (1991) had declared that future marketing practice will focus on “building value-laden relationships & marketing networks”.

Power of social networking sites
Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). Thus we can quantify the worth of any network in direct proportion to its users. Now take into consideration an internet powered social network with the ability of potentially connecting the whole world under a single network. The social networking sites of today come close to this, with the power of networking of over hundreds of millions of users.

Wiki-ly put, “A social networking site is an online place where a user can create a profile & build a personal network that connects him or her to other users”.

The 4 inherent benefits of using networking sites for marketing vis-à-vis traditional media:
• Dialogues v/s Monologues: It is not a forced monologue, but a meaningful 2-way interaction engaging the consumer in real conversations with the brand
• Reach: The scale of reach of this mode is unsurpassed by any traditional media
• Inbound v/s outbound: It is more direct & engaging, because social networking is never inflicted upon the consumers, but it is the other way around, where the consumers flock around brands they are interested in(inbound)
• Measurable: Metrics like the number of conversations, level of interaction, follower size of fan pages, etc, make it easier to measure its impact as a marketing medium

The networking leaders
In a recent survey conducted by MarketingProfs on the importance of various social media platforms like blogs, social network sites etc in providing business value, networking sites like Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn have emerged as clear winners in the social networking space, as shown in adjacent graph.

Let us study the various features that make facebook.com & twitter.com the leaders in this front.

Founded by Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004 as an exclusive network for Harvard students, Facebook is today the world’s largest social network, with over 300 million users. In India, it is the 4th most trafficked website, & the most popular social networking site. [Source: Alexa.com]
Innovative marketing tools on Facebook: Apart from traditional sponsored ad/links:
Pages: People can choose to be "fans" of the organization that sets up a fan page, & are voluntarily engaged in various marketing campaigns like status updates about new offers etc.
Virtual Gift shop: This unique tool enables marketers to target over 8 million unique users within 24 hours & is stocked with images which can be posted on friends’ profile pages which can be bought using cheap credits. Samples of music will soon be made available in the store which can become a useful music sampling centre for record companies & artists.
Even though the store currently forms a small chunk of its total revenues, it is a way for Facebook to obtain the credit card numbers of more customers & develop a one-click payment mechanism that third-party developers can later use to sell virtual goods on the applications they are creating for the site. Going forward, this can become a potent tool for companies to conduct product trials & marketing for new merchandise to a targeted user.

Facebook Blue Ribbon "Best Campaign" award winners for best campaigns each month:
• Sponsored ads - Use of Event/Movie RSVPs: Walt Disney movie Hannah Montana built teen awareness by showcasing exclusive clips on Facebook & asking for RSVPs. It was hugely popular with over 1 million attendees.
• Virtual gifts from gift store: Cadbury’s Crème Egg campaign promoted its offering letting users gift these eggs to their friends along with a personal message.
• Use of fan-pages & engaging videos: The Adidas Originals’ US campaign used engagement videos with top athletes & celebrities like David Beckham to encourage users to become a fan of Adidas Fan Page.

Twitter.com - micro-blogging & live information site:
Twitter is a social networking & micro-blogging service that allows users to post their latest updates. Twitter allows users to post text updates via SMS, instant messaging, email, Twitter’s website & third party applications. Its growing importance as a media tool can be gauged from the fact that it is being introduced as mandatory course-load for journalism students in universities abroad.

In a survey of twitter marketers by MarketingProfs, it was revealed that Twitter is used mostly for Brand awareness, followed by networking & community-building. Other uses include: Brand-reputation management, Customer service, Prospecting & Selling.
Some of the most successful campaigns on Twitter:
• One of the most successful twitter campaigns is Dell which offered exclusive discounts to users who followed them on twitter
• 'Paranormal Activity', a low budget Hollywood movie, is a perfect case of awareness building using Twitter where people rallied around a movie they cared about by tweeting about it. It went on to become one of the top grossing films in the country.

Market Research:
Tracking conversations on Social networking sites can be valuable research aids for testing various stages in the innovation funnel of product development. Apart from this, one should also track the Voice of the Customer about own & competitor’s brand. Also with over 5 years of successful socialization, networking sites are ready to reap their rich data mine – user profiling & targeted marketing is expected to be a major trend in the coming years.

Optimisation of social networking sites:
Conventional wisdom suggests that the best form of using networking sites to your advantage is by having your presence in the network, for e.g., through a fan page on Facebook or a twitter link, where followers get regular updates about the company’s promotions, which also serves as a platform to seek valuable feedback & criticism. As Harsh Gadia, CEO, Smursh (a Mumbai-based social media marketing agency) says, “For Optimal usage of social networking sites in brand building, one should go a step ahead, & translate the networking effect to building communities. It is a wrong strategy to use networking sites as the main focus; they should just serve as a connecting door for the correct user engagement by directing users to a social media portal or company blog. The winning move is when we succeed in building & sustaining communities around the brand.” Sunsilk Gang of Girls was one such successful campaign that built communities of loyalists.

Today the internet is dominated by the search engines like Google which mainly collect & provide information, while social networking sites like Facebook are still unsuccessfully stalking the perfect monetisation technique. But going forward, this story is set to undergo a reversal of roles, provided the networking sites leverage their biggest strength i.e., connecting people. The search & information giants of today will face a setback in this backdrop, because for an industry where maximum revenue generation stems from advertising, collecting data is less valuable than connecting people.


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