Social media has matured. It’s no longer a sexy new toy for a marketer. And now comes the debate. Now marketers are more familiar with social, they’re increasingly asking is a social media a tool or an opportunity? Does social really offer anything unique and different? Or is it simply another tool that marketers can use to reach goals that preceded social media, and will long outlast it?
As time passes, our relationship with social media matures. No longer is it a flashy buzzword used to wow clients and win pitches. Neither is it a magic wand to cure all marketing ills. It has become part of our day-to-day life, to the point where it is impossible to consider a marketing strategy that doesn’t include a social element.
As the hype fades, a debate has begun – Does social media offer anything in itself different or is it just another weapon in our communication arsenal? Is it a unique opportunity or simply another tool that marketers can use to reach the goals that have always existed?
“Social networks are not new,” insists James Devon, Planning Director at MBA. “There are century old examples of ‘grass roots’ production and circulation of content.” Devon believes that the recent explosion of social media hasn’t so much changed the way we communicate, but accelerated the process. “They allow the actions of normal human behaviour to spread faster and reach more people. Whether various iterations of particular digital social platforms last is irrelevant. People like being social and sharing things. They always will.”
So, does Devon believe social media is nothing more than another just another tool? Now that the gold rush surrounding social media has subsided, should brands start adopting set routines for social activity? “Not at all. Any marketing tool should be considered an opportunity.” It is also important to realise that social media is not a static situation. “There are new platforms and new technologies emerging nearly every day, each presenting an opportunity for new forms of creativity, new ways to deliver additional value to customers. Even the existing platforms never stand still, so brands need to constantly adapt to stay ahead of the curve.”
Clementine Hancox, Senior Account Director at We Are Social agrees. “While social media has certainly matured over the last few years, by no means has it reached its potential. Yes, it is a tool to reach marketing goals, but it’s also an opportunity – there’s no need for these to be mutually exclusive.”
Hancox cites recent research published by Fishburn Hedges and Echo Research that 18 million customers, more than a third of British adults, have now interacted with companies through social media. Of these, 65% believed that social is a better way to communicate than through traditional call centres with 68% believing it has helped them find their voice. “Customer service is a good example of how social media is both a tool and an opportunity, giving customers what the want – 24/7 access to a visible, accountable customer service team.”
What’s more, a social presence shows willingness on the part of the brand to meet their customers as companies venture out into their customers’ online space rather than expecting customers to come to them. It’s this eagerness to communicate that can pay dividends over time. “In a public space,” Hancox adds, “other consumers can see issues being dealt with quickly and professionally, driving affinity towards and advocacy for the brand.” The ultimate goal – to provide good customer service – may not have changed, but the opportunity is bigger than ever before.
Of course, it isn’t just a brand that has the opportunity to talk. Craig Lawrie, director and head of digital at INITIALS Marketing believes that the main difference between social media and other, more traditional media channels is the level of power it passes back to the consumer. “Every social network invites the consumer to engage, participate and share their opinion like never before,” Lawrie explains. “But just as much as social media has the power to encourage brand popularity it can damage it too – like an online game of Chinese whispers where messages become mixed the more they are retweeted.”
It’s a warning echoed by Saulo Menezes De Oliveira, Social Media Officer at Birmingham City University. “Marketers who ignore what customers are saying have not learned how to make use of social media effectively. A brand’s reputation can be built or utterly destroyed via social networking sites.” De Oliveria isn’t just talking about a company’s official social media presence, but networking sites in general. “People will not necessarily post their views on your official channel. They may decide to share their views with immediate friends, on public forums or even pages set up by disgruntled customers.”
Tool or opportunity?
Ben Fox, social media consultant for Fishburn Hedges sees these challenges as opportunities in their own right. “Gone are the days where sheer number of followers or the average number of likes were core targets. We are now dealing with a switched-on and highly intellectual audience who can bite back when companies make mistakes.”
It’s not that Fox believes that pre-social consumers were lacking in intelligence, but that the social arena has given marketers a better chance of reversing bad press. “In the past conversations and debates would have occurred offline, where brands could do little about them. Now they can be easily monitored online. Suddenly we have the ability to listen, understand and communicate, rather than just broadcast. It’s never been a more important time to be a marketer because although social media has opened up a new stream of income, it’s also opened more challenges and opportunities.”
“Social media has changed the game because it allows brands to listen to the conversations that are being had about them, in a way that we’ve never been able to before,” concludes Clementine Hancox of We Are Social. “Marketers should always see it as an opportunity. Today’s consumers are more empowered and connected than ever before. People are simply never going to stop talking, no matter how developed the individual platforms become.”
For corporations getting to grips with the social platforms they manage should not simply view these platforms as just a tool but a relevant and vital component of their marketing activity. Opportunities abound in this space with the most creative corporations gaining the most positive brand advocacy.