Are marketers creating a social media bubble? (via Nigel Hollis - Chief Global Analyst @ Millward Brown)

 by Nigel Hollis - Chief Global Analyst @ Millward Brown
While at the Corporate Image and Branding conference in New York City on Thursday, I was lucky enough to hear a presentation by Bernd Schmitt. The thesis of Bernd’s presentation, that successful brands think big and innovate in ways that disrupt the status quo, is hardly new, but his delivery was very engaging. In one almost throwaway line he suggested that it was “narrow thinking” that resulted in the financial bubble that catapulted us into the Great Recession. This was a great segue to my presentation because I think that very similar narrow thinking is creating a social media bubble today.
The AdReaction 2009 study conducted by Dynamic Logic finds that 59 percent of Internet users are actively engaged with social networking sites. (Click here to learn more.) Data from has identified Facebook and YouTube as the world’s second- and third-most-visited Web sites. If the eyeballs are on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (to name just a few), then that’s where brands want to be. Brands like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Dove have been widely praised for how well they have used these new channels. But as I suggested in my post last week, these brands owe a large part of their social media success to the strong relationships they already had with consumers. Apart from behemoths like these, the brands and businesses that have benefited most from the rise of social media are small. 

For instance, in a special Economist report on social media, Krystin Rubin, the co-owner of Mission Pie, reportedly credits Twitter for part of the success of her business. The report suggests that over a thousand people now follow the baker’s tweets. So for Mission Pie in San Francisco, tweeting allows access to a large number of potential purchasers relative to its existing customer base. But one thousand followers does not even represent a drop in the ocean for a mass-market brand like Coca-Cola. The brand’s four million Facebook fans represent a more substantial proportion of Coca-Cola’s global customer base, but is still a small minority of the brand’s overall franchise

The sad truth is that for most big brands, like the ones our clients tend to own, social media is simply another touch point—a great means to engage already loyal customers on an ongoing basis, but not a means to build presence. To build presence, a brand must resort to media with mass reach. And it is not just brands that rely on mass media for their social media success. Take the example of the Rage Against The Machine Facebook campaign, on which I reported over the holidays. Would 750,000 people have signed up to that campaign if the mass media had not covered it with growing attention during the crucial pre-Xmas week? I doubt it. 
Before I close, here is another statistic from the Dynamic Logic AdReaction study. Of those people actively engaged with social media in all of its myriad forms, only 13 percent claimed to follow a brand. This tends to support the comment made by Brian Morrissey of AdAge, who pointed out at the “140 Character Conference” in New York, “People don’t go to these channels to talk about brands. If you’re not adding value, you’re spam.” And what value are people looking for? New product information, discounts, deals, competitions, and giveaways. So while some fans may be true loyalists, many are just looking for a deal. Unless you can find ways to truly engage people, social media sites represent a potential slippery slope that could lead you to pay your customers to be fans. All of this leads me to believe that social media is no way for a mass market brand to disrupt the status quo. It is simply an additional means to communicate and engage your loyal customers. And unless you do it right by creating engaging content and listening to the response, you risk undermining your brand rather than strengthening it. OK, that’s my penny’s worth. What’s yours?

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