Why brands shouldn't get lost in the Twitter storm

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last Month’s Media 140 London event looked at how brands can make the most out of social media. As Martyn Perks watched the tweeters steal the limelight from the speakers, he wondered how brands can avoid the same thing happening to them.

The recent Media140 conference in London was held to debate how to use social media, in particular tools like Twitter, to engage audiences with brands online. It was a timely event when recent research has revealed that we are falling out of love with brands. FreshMinds Research have reported that people have very little emotional response to many media brands. Only 5.9% of Facebook users, 16.6% of BBC audiences and 7.3% of Guardian readers admit they love their brand.

Today, the entire marketing industry is being severely tested when the gap between what a brand represents and what people seem to want is getting wider. The internet has helped clarify this when what customers click on, tweet and search for can be easily measured. The conclusions often shows what people are not looking for. However, businesses and brands who suffer from a deficit in trust equally believe the internet is their panacea. As one panellist noted, social media helps people construct their own image of what a brand represents—away from any officially sanctioned press release. By sharing, commenting, connecting and letting people become fans of brands online, many hope to resurrect their credibility when many people ignore them in the traditional media. Some brands have got it right only because they have gone all-out to engage an entire audience online from scratch. Drinks brand Red Bull presented insights from its array of campaigns, sport tie-ins and sponsorship deals that have meant it operates across many online networks, including on Facebook and YouTube. Because Red Bull has not launched a new product in 20 years, they have instead focussed everything on reinventing their marketing. For them, the marketing has become the product. Another equally compelling story came from the subversive food brand Innocent. They also spend a lot of time engaging audiences online, striking up conversations on Twitter and Facebook, listening and learning to what customers want, and running competitions inviting people to invent new slogans for their drink packaging. In the online comparison marketplace, we learned that the meercat mascot character, Aleksandr Orlov, ‘founder of Compare the Meerkat’ brand has managed to win over 600,000 fans on Facebook. How? Each of these brands have cleverly engaged audiences with ever-more inventive marketing campaigns. Innocent is all about projecting an alternative message from the mainstream food industry; Red Bull have gone all-out to engage a youth audience; Aleksandr meercat has been given an entire life story. If you go online you will find that Aleksandr is even petitioning the ‘Dictionary of English Oxford’ to include the word ‘Simples’ because his friend Sergei ‘says it’s not a real word’. And yes 7,768 people have signed up to support him! But away from those brands who were made for an online audience, it is less clear whether social media can save others struggling in a competitive market. One speaker from British Airways said that what matters is building up a relationship with the audience. All well and good but in the midst of a price war between themselves and other airlines, including everyone’s least favourite budget airline, Ryanair, loyalty counts for less when money matters most. Ignoring Ryanair’s turbulent online relationship with audiences (earlier removing its Twitter pages), British Airways has not managed much better in terms of gathering a paltry 7,224 Twitter followers. No matter how hard a brand tries to connect with its audience, there is no guarantee it will work when the audience has other things on its mind. To demonstrate the point, the Media140 conference itself seemed to exist in two separate worlds: one in the real-world, with another conversation with those who were equally talking to each other during the speeches and panel discussions on Twitter using their mobile phones. When each set of panellists had finished introducing themselves to the audience, the conference chair called forth the Twitterfall —a real-time display of all the tweets (that’s a message in Twitter-speak) as they are sent. It was projected onto the wall behind the panel of speakers. From the start the Twitterfall was like an endless avalanche of tweets falling down the screen, happening at such a speed, they were barely readable. The presence of the Twitterfall caused a strange moment, when the real and virtual worlds collided. Those not twittering away on their phones quickly realised that an entirely different conversation had been taking place without them. It also made the panellists on stage appear less relevant with a much larger conversation happening behind them. It had changed the entire premise of the conference. Like the brands being discussed, the speakers were left reacting to events unfolding behind them on the wall instead of being in control and setting the agenda of the conversation. Of course every now and again one of the speakers tried to pipe up and engage with the broader conversation. Soon afterwards, the wall once again took control, putting the speakers back in their place. Only occasionally did the two worlds meet when those Twitterers managed to poke fun at the speakers, getting a laugh. For the speakers it was a losing game but was nevertheless fun to watch. But what else would you expect from an event organised around 140 characters? Any brand that wants to communicate online cannot afford to let the audience own the message. You must remain unique driven by what you do, produce or sell, that is ahead of the market—without letting it run ahead of you. Then you can embrace social media with a unique story to tell not having to rely upon the internet to tell you what to do. So don’t become obsessed with social media. Then it won’t become obsessed with you.