Brands getting to grips with social media need to clearly define their aims and develop a sharper understanding of customer engagement, writes Stuart Derrick.
'There is not a boardroom in the land that doesn't have a whiteboard with the words 'Social media?' penned on it,' says Gareth Jones, editor of Marketing and Revolution.
That's why Marketing teamed up with social brand agency Headstream to bring together top marketers to find out what should be foremost in brands' approach to social media.
What does social media mean for brand management and the structuring of organisations? What is its effect on staff and what technology issues does it raise?
Chris Buckley, head of consulting at Headstream, says 'an obsession' is a good description of brands' approach to social media right now, but logic and common sense are absent in certain sectors.
'For companies like games publishers, why wouldn't you do it? You have well-established communities with natural passion and it fits your sales cycle. But few brands are like that. Others see it as a problem and are doing it reluctantly,' he adds.
Even brands that have enjoyed success through social media admit that there is no blueprint for the platform and that, for now, a 'test, learn, adapt' approach is the only way to operate. Cadbury's Wispa, for example, was famously resurrected on the back of a social-media campaign on Facebook, becoming a social media case study in the process.
'We've had to make it up as we go along and have had as many cock-ups as anybody, which you have to expect and act to minimise the problems,' says Ross Farquhar, brand manager for Cadbury. 'Brands are obsessed with social media, but if you do not participate, consumers will set up a Facebook page anyway. The crime is not doing it properly.'
Marketers are on a nerve-wrackingly steep learning curve with social media, says James King, marketing director, EMEA brand marketing and 360 deg integration at Motorola.
He describes himself as a late entrant to social media, adding: 'My role is to tiptoe in and understand what we can do. We've learned that you cannot control social media, but it can provide small insights that can blossom into something larger.'
Ceding this control could fundamentally alter the nature of marketing, says Jones. 'Will brand management cease to exist when it is more about interaction?'
For classically trained marketers such as Richard Tolley, interim marketing director at Bettys and Taylors, social media challenges long-held assumptions. Customers are less deferential and brand managers can't control their messages to the nth degree. The best thing they can do is set the agenda, he argues.
'FMCG brands have to face the fact that they are not that important to people's lives any more. Consumer relationships are with phones and networks. You have to find a context, which is what brands like Dove do with beauty. People don't want to interact with a lump of cheese (so) organisations have to be set up to deal with conversations in an adult-to-adult, even-handed way. It's very difficult for a big organisation coming from a background of 'push' marketing. The language and mechanisms are not there.'
For Joe Clift, brand and customer marketing director at Lloyds Banking Group, ceding control is a significant leap to take.
'In a reputational sense, we have to be incredibly careful about unleashing that power,' he says. 'We would have to do it in a controlled way, with relatively conservative objectives and topics. You have to be conscious of what you are trying to do and letting go is hard, as customers use their language, not yours. …