Amid Constant Change, Content and Consistency Count
More than 10 years after the advent of social media, the world of business Web-site managers and marketers is as unsettled as it was the day Facebook launched. That’s why executives from key organizations working in social media and integrated marketing venues say content is king for companies seeking to establish and enhance their social-media presence. And the pace of that marketing evolution is increasing rapidly, said the professionals who gathered Sept. 4 at the offices of Gragg Advertising. There, Gragg’s Advertising’s Darryl Mattox joined DEG’s Neal Sharma as co-chairs of the second Social Media & Integrated Marketing Industry Outlook as-sembly. Sharma made one of the most salient points of a fast-paced, two- hour conversation when he noted the profound differences between the jobs of knowledge worker and assembly-line worker: While the assembly line is likely to be performing the same tasks month after month, the knowledge worker has no idea what types of problems he’ll be facing two weeks into the future—what he needs then, are the tools, resources and critical-thinking skills necessary to resolve problems as—even before—they arise.
Social Media’s Evolution
Cutting straight to the relevant point with Neal Sharma’s opening question about the evolution of social media, co-founder Travis Wright of MediaThinkLabs noted that, “It’s not really social media anymore; it’s social business. If it’s not integrated within your business now—especially with employers that block social media channels—you have to understand that your employees are some of your biggest advocates. Tapping into those and finding creative ways to engage and to allow them to tap in is pretty huge.”
Leah Gentry, director of content, social and design for Sprint, penned a quick list of seven ongoing and emerging trends in social media, including such things as the effects of increasing mobility, demographic fragmentation of channels like Facebook, and crowdsourcing. Crowd-sourcing originally was about ‘Let’s see how many people can give us ideas,” she said, but the emergence of user-generated content was turning that group dynamic into a two-way conversation, yielding what she called “authentic, meaningful peer-rated and peer-elevated content for your site.” She sees a particular power in a business letting its client base use social media to provide information that attracts other users and potential customers.
Mike Brown, founder of the Brain-zooming Group, noted that, much like social media has transcended political and geographic borders—think real-time updates of developments in the Middle East—“I think that’s starting to happen in other aspects of society, in other aspects of business. I’m particularly interested in supply chain, and how borders start to change there.”
Relevance, said Brian Yamada, executive director of channel activation at VML, is becoming more vital. “To me, what’s getting interesting is how the platforms are trying to curate and trying to guess what’s important and how they’re continuing to refine their algorithms to try to guess what I think or who I’m close to. The more information there is, the more we as human beings need ways to filter that down so we can get to the important stuff,” especially in a marketing context.
Ramsey Mohsen, director of social media at DEG, said an essential question for companies setting a social media strategy was, “why would anyone find value in your blog or Facebook page or your Twitter handle?” For the longest time, he said, DEG has been trying to teach clients that if they have something powerful, useful or utilitarian to provide, then they can see results and business outcomes can change.
His colleague at DEG, Patrick Padley, anticipates a further convergence in social media that makes it, well, simply “media.” “I think a continual evolution of conver-gence is going to happen in the next two years. Whether Facebook is becoming irrelevant to a new generation, who knows? But it’s going to continue to evolve.”
Neal Sharma noted the disconnect that still permeates C-suites at corporations around the country. “I remain intrigued by companies that are still saying things like transparency and trust are more important than ever, but their kids have direct Twitter access to their favorite NBA star, or their favorite Kardashian or whatever—the idea that the CEO in the corner office wouldn’t be equally accessible by the same means proves that there’s a distance to go.”
One of the most significant developments for business will be the ability to effectively analyze Big Data, including information that can now be captured through social media channels, and turn that into focused, targeted marketing efforts. “With all these marketing technologies now,” said Travis Wright, “we can really track and identify where the value lies, so you can prove it and get more budget to
do more testing and figure more things out. The evolution of analytics is key.”
Along those lines, it’s important for businesses, especially smaller ones with leaner budgets, to begin embracing uses of social media as a means of gathering more useful customer data, said Shelly Kramer. “To me, our journey in the next couple of years continues to be one of being patient and educating and showing demonstrable ROI” to clients, she said, “Big data scares the hell out of people, but let’s start them with Little Data, any kind of data, and go from there.”
Consumers in Charge
Technology, said Sprint’s Jason Gertzen, “is evolving to the point it’s changing the way people are using it,” especially for consumers. With Facebook, for example, “it’s much easier than ever before to find out which one of your friends had to hire a plumber, or basement foundation repair crew, and you can get recommendations from your friends.” The downside of that, participants agreed, was that it created a business challenge to effectively manage negative comments and potentially turn disgruntled customers into advocates.
Jake Jacobson, who developed the social media presence of Garmin International before joining Children’s Mercy Hospitals & Clinics last spring, cited the power of consistency in an organization’s effort to keep customers satisfied. His own experience with a phone and Internet company at home, he said, often produces feelings of exasperation from phone-support crews, but he found that on-line customer care efforts from the same provider were far more satisfactory. So “having the correct theme and carrying that across all social media channels is ideal, and yet that’s still not even enough,” he said.
Jonathan Mast, social media manager for the Sedgwick Group, which manages the claims processes for Fortune 500 companies, noted one effect of that. “People don’t want to pick up the phone,
call an 800 number dial in three different numbers to try and talk to somebody,” he said; they want faster responses.
Kevin Smith, Gragg Advertising’s interactive manager, said that as consumers become more sophisticated and more comfortable with mobile devices, they want useful information. “They don’t always want to be sold,” he said. “They’re on Facebook and Twitter to stay connected with their people, and they don’t need to be beaten over the head with ‘Here’s a sale on shoes, here’s a sale on handbags, use this promo code for this.’”
Where Does it Work?
Jake Jacobson recalled the reasons that compelled Garmin to invest more in a social medial presence, for reasons that mirror those of companies that are still reluctant to do so. “You have two choices: you either address it or ignore it,” he said. “Companies get known for doing one or the other. So I had to go ahead and be the guy who said, all right, we need to address this.”
After engaging the product support side there, he won over the people he needed to address the thorny issues of flipping the attitudes of unhappy customers. “Half the time, that even hasn’t solved the problem yet, their stuff is still broke, but they’re turning around and saying ‘XYZ Inc. is so great because they responded.’ We’re so used to screaming into the wind.”
Other companies, like Chipotle with its tongue-in-cheek social media voice, or J.C. Penney have also done exemplary work creating social media strategies,
Kevin Smith said the same of Sporting Kansas City, as he’s both a fan and a season ticket-holder and has had the fan experience that makes the soccer club so popular. It’s an instructive example, he said, be-cause “if you suck as a company, you’re probably going to suck at social media and media in general.” That’s something Gragg preaches to its clients, telling them it will gladly take over their social media campaigns, but neither Facebook, Twitter nor any other platform was powerful enough to offset poor organizational performance. In fact, just the opposite, since they give voice to unhappy customers.
Leah Gentry noted the differences between companies—service providers vs. those producing consumables, for example—that yield very different social media needs. “The issues are very different,” she said, noting the difference between a customer who frequently buys coffee at Starbucks and the customer who buys a washing machine every 20 years. “You really need to look at it vertical by vertical, because they are very different types of conversations,” she said.
Shelly Kramer cited the work VML was doing on behalf of Gatorade, or the work of MillerCoors, as well as that of DVF in women’s apparel. A friend who bought a dress from DVF, she said, was soon receiving personalized e-mails that originated with her purchase, the company launched an Instagram campaign that offered rewards for self-portraits of women in their DVF dresses, the Twitter channel produced a hashtag to let users vote on winners, and more. Impressive as that was, though, it was a B2C company, and the challenges of effective cross-channel marketing campaigns are far more significant for B2B organizations, she said.
In that same fashion-sense vein, Travis Wright cited the work of Nieman Marcus, which has placed a public relations staffer in every store to take photos, send out Tweets, and even post photos on Instagram, taking advantage of premier seating by the runways at fashion shows and shoots. “They’re integrated and they’ve trained people throughout all elements of the business,” Wright said.
Ramsey Mohsen noted the unusual phenomenon of social media outreach that had proven spectacularly effective, but not by design. A Seattle-based firm’s analysis of the most popular Facebook posts—excluding pop cultural figures—showed that the top three all came from UPS, but had little to do with package delivery. A post about a delivery driver having saved someone’s life, for example, drew “crazy amounts of likes and shares and comments,” Mohsen said, even though the photo wasn’t particularly striking, the text wasn’t highly polished—the posts succeeded because they had content that resonated with readers.
Neal Sharma noted that on-line success is a reflection of brick-and-mortar effectiveness. A social media presence may be able to put lipstick on a pig for companies that perform poorly, but it will still be a pig.
Sharma also asked whether dedicated social media at ad agencies or internally at other companies was an unnecessary conceit. “Every brand and company is different, and what they’re trying to solve for is different,” said Brian Yamada. “You can’t do what UPS did without having that there. Social has created that ‘always-on, answer me now, get right back to me or I’ve already forgotten the complaint’ mentality. If you get back to me six hours or two days later, it’s already too late.” So depending on the task, it’s critically important to make sure the brand has that presence
and ability to move quickly, Yamada said.
Jason Gertzen said Sprint’s experience in setting up on-line care teams was not unlike that of other large organizations: It’s messy, but something that those tasked with will figure out if given the resources, support and leeway. “You need people who understood the medium and can apply the business practices to it and that make sense” if you’re going to have an element of authenticity the way you react with customers through social media. “Once you pick up the skills on social, which is not rocket science, you’re better for it because you have the right people there,” he said.
The reality, said Shelly Kramer, is that some companies won’t stick with it long enough to figure it out, and will prematurely leave channels that they believe are ineffective. “We’ve had clients come to us and say things like, ‘We’ve got this RFP out and they’re making a decision next week and we just found out the mayor of New Orleans is big on Twitter, so we need you to tweet the hell out of him.” Won’t work, she said: “It’s a relationship-building process and it doesn’t happen like that. Sales people and business-development people, sometimes they want an easy button, they want it to happen overnight, they don’t want to have to spend any time doing it.”
Mike Brown cited the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, a specialty restaurant that offers 13 different sauces. Why? “Because everybody has a different flavor, and with your social media personality, for brand, you’ve got to pick your spots. But it may not be exactly your off-line brand personality.” A brand, he said, must be savvy enough about what it stands for, and the range of voice it has on-line, to execute
an effective social strategy.
Darryl Mattox said Gragg’s experience with clients in the .edu corner of the Web had demonstrated the need for organizations to know explicitly who they’re reaching and where they’re coming from. That doesn’t happen without frequent, detailed conversations and analytics about potential customers.
“We will never know their business like they will, no matter what we do and what that voice is that we can carry out there. Getting to know them really comes down to talking about them on a regular basis and having somebody there that’s involved in it, that can share that type of information and what’s going on locally,” he said.
Jake Jacobson also noted the challenge of speaking with one voice to disparate client bases. Camelbak, the hydration specialist, sells to the members of the military, to hard-core hunters and to road cyclists, all very different sets of customers. “You’re talking about camouflage, safety orange and Spandex, all from the same brand, yet they have to do it in a way that endears them to each of those markets and doesn’t put off the others,” he said.
The challenge for smaller businesses to execute these strategies, of course, is almost always a consideration of resource allocation. Is that the best use of available capital, with the best ROI?
“We spend a lot of time trying to help small and mid-size businesses that have a trade—they’re plumbers, they’re contractors, and they know they need this,” said Cindy Rock. “Everybody feels like ‘I need digital, but I don’t really know what to do. I don’t have time to think about it, so I need somebody else to do it for me, but I also want to make sure I’m getting the ROI.” It’s not cheap, she said, so those efforts must make the phone ring or drive people to the Web site.
Jonathan Mast said that in social settings, he finds himself surrounded by small business owners when anyone learns that he works in social media. “Six people are standing around you saying, ‘I have a small business; can you tell me because I’m afraid, and I don’t know how to do it.’ Smaller companies lacking the resources to have a 24/7 customer-response team have a difficult challenge, he said.
Neal Sharma asked how those smaller organizations, for example, restaurants or carpenters, could combat unfavorable on-line chatter. “They’re heavily affected by the idea that they’re more exposed now than they’ve ever been, with Yelp! or Angie’s List or a slew of different social properties that will talk about what’s good and what’s not so good. So given that they don’t have the resources—I’m guessing maybe they do, but don’t have resources to manage their perception online—how do they contend with all that?”
Cindy Rock cited a likely source of failure that many business owners will run into if proposed solutions come from someone whose pitch starts with “I’ve got a guy who …” “For some of them, that sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn’t work. And they realize that this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but thought it was a cheap way to go to get a toe in the water.” Competent advice, she said, was paramount, “because it’s too important to miss this.”
To Sharma’s question about potential solutions for smaller firms, she suggested getting positive reviews posted, offering incentives to customers or identifying online reputation-management tools.
Small businesses, said Leah Gentry, often rely on word-of-mouth, so they can send customers thank-you notes with offers of discounts on their next visits; that’s a proven way to get people to offer positive comments. Then build from there. “Don’t start knitting the afghan from nothing, start at the edges and work in,” she said.
Patrick Padley said more small businesses might need to reconsider whether social media is in fact the place to focus their efforts. For some, he suggested, a better strategy might start with an e-mail list, or a Web site that’s mobile-friendly. “It’s a business investment and you have to say where strategically in the digital space it makes sense and get the best ROI and see some success,” he said.
The Power of Video
What impact, asked Neal Sharma, would emerging video technology mean for social media?
Darryl Mattox said that as bandwidth continues to grow, Gragg will be paying special attention to the 18-to-34-year-olds and how they respond, so that it can try to drive more of them to its clients in higher-education settings. “Growth in that area is going to change what I am able to do and how we’re able to use our marketing side for my target audiences,” he said.
“I think it’s huge,” said Shelly Kramer, who noted that her seven-year-old twins go to YouTube when they want to know something. “They know how to put on makeup, not because Mommy wears it, but because really cute girls on YouTube showed them how to do it” and they didn’t have to ask how to do it; “they just figured it out,” Kramer said. Thus, businesses that don’t seize on video are leaving an opportunity for content creation on the table.
Even with the technology in early stages, it’s still sufficient to make a profound marketing impact, said Kevin Smith, citing the user-generated content of a Doritos ad that was voted among the best commercials aired during a Super Bowl. “This is something we preach all the time: There’s a difference between a quality video that you need on your home page vs. something you can put
on your YouTube channel or on Vine,” he said, and that empowers people to shoot 30-second videos that don’t have to be glitz or glam, and don’t need extensive production, editing or administrative approvals.
Lea Gentry noted differences between types of content. Some can be produced at low cost, such as support content for how to operate a cell phone. Another is purely social, more conversational. “I really start to see a difference,” she said.
Customer-service applications are already proving significant, said Jason Gertzen, who points to the kinds of home-improvement project assistance available through Lowe’s channels.
“The state of where video is at is almost, depending on the brand and organization, just as important as your SEO and paid efforts,” said Ramsey Mohsen. “There are other manufacturers who should be showing how-tos and providing online technical documentation, because if you’re investing $13,000 for a wire that goes in a machine in your factory, you want to know how that thing works and how it installs and whether it’s the right fit. A lot of times, people don’t break down the utility aspect of support content and how that can actually affect the sales cycle for the better.”
YouTube, noted Travis Wright, is now the second-largest search engine, which makes it imperative for companies to master the technology needed to bolster their presence there.
On the social side, said Patrick Padley, “on a regular daily basis, my parents as grandparents are face-timing with their grandchildren” via Skype. “It’s a way for them to communicate visually.” And there will be more of that as new applications emerge or existing ones, like Twitter, seek to move beyond the limits of a 140-character tweet.
“As much as we love Twitter for putting a voice to a brand,” said Jake Jacobson, “video puts a face and a voice to that brand, and it makes that connection even more intimate.” He provided a powerful personal anecdote to support that, regarding a low-budget effort posted on YouTube in which he demonstrated ways to use a Garmin product some might find complicated. Long afterward, while in New York for a marathon expo, Jacobson noticed someone trying to take his picture. The man introduced himself by saying, “Hello my name is Miklos, I come from Greece to run a marathon. You taught me how to use my watch; you are Jake!” That customer, Jacobson said, felt as if he had made a friend.
Which provided validation for Ramsey Mohsen’s concluding point: “The Web,” he said, “rewards great content.”