Should Brands Rely on Social Media to Connect with Consumers?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about Social Media and Branding. Brands are valuable assets that companies create, nurture and maintain with great care, right?

But how do you measure brand value in the social age? And what role do marketers play in cultivating the brand and maintaining consistency in the brand image?

Social Media and the Brand

Since social media channels have come into existence, brands have been trying to figure out how to leverage them as sales channels for consumers. If brands wanted to sell to women, they thought they had to get in front of them on Pinterest. Needed to reach young men? YouTube was the channel of choice.

However every few years, a new social channel manifests claiming to be the new way to connect with younger generations. Not wanting to risk getting left behind, brands rush to establish their presence on these channels, while also maintaining their continuous presence everywhere else. This results in budgets and resources being spread thin and brands left struggling to prove ROI for new social initiatives.

So how can brands get ahead? Should they continue the rush to adopt new social channels? What if these social channels aren’t even where consumers are looking to engage and shop with brands?

To better understand this issue, Bluecore commissioned a study with NAPCO research on how consumers prefer to receive communications from brands and how they use different communication channels. The study is broken down by four generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z) to identify any trends or differentiating behaviors between demographics.

Among other findings, the study found that consumers across generations use social media more for engaging friends and family (surprise, surprise!) and less for shopping with brands.

Consumers Don’t Turn to Social to Learn About New Products

When consumers were asked which channels they check to learn about new products from brands, 36% say they don’t turn to any social channels at all. Boomers (59%) and Generation X (43%) were least likely to check social channels, followed by Millennials (33%).

Although Facebook comes in as the second-highest channel for learning about new products across all demographics, brands should still be careful about focusing on social channels as a way to reach consumers.

Ever-Changing Algorithms Continue to Push Out Brands

Taking Facebook as an example, when it was first introduced as a social channel for brands, company pages were positioned as owned media. Brands shared similar content they would in emails, such as new merchandise arrivals and sales promotions, and consumers would follow these pages to receive updates organically in their feeds. Brands had the option to pay to advertise their content if they wanted an extra boost to reach new audiences, but it wasn’t necessary in order to reach an already engaged audience.

“Facebook at the end of the day, is a place where people want to share things that matter to them, whether it’s a news story or their child walking.” – Melissa Bell, Vice President, Vox Media

But gradually year after year, Facebook would update its news feed algorithm in ways that made it harder for brands to connect with consumers without paying to advertise. In June 2016, Facebook announced that it planned to make even more changes to its algorithm so that it would boost content posted by the friends and family of users over publishers and brands. By the end of the month, reach of brand and publisher stories had dropped 42%. This was all done to improve the site’s revenue model, but has essentially resulted in Facebook switching from an owned to paid media channel.

The lesson here is that regardless of how people use social media, brands will always be at the mercy of the algorithms and changes of the channel. In an interview with The New York Times, Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said,

“There is now an expectation, in general, on the part of publishers that platforms will change, and that they won’t necessarily be informed how they will change.”

Therefore, in order to completely own the customer experience, brands should rely on owned media channels that allow them to control their reach and message.

Retaining Your Brand Identity on Social Media

Well, we know that customers will pay a premium for brands they trust or simply will be more willing to spend their hard-earned money with a strong brand. But while social media offers an opportunity to extend the reach of a brand message, it also presents great risks through that extension.

AdAge asked these same questions in the (relatively) early days of social media in the article “What’s Your Brand’s Social ID?” where they identify social media as presenting an “emerging crisis of brand identity”. The answer is that brands have a compelling need:

…to communicate who you are as a brand and what you stand for through social media in a far more consistent, strategic and global way.

While this sounds very much like the common definition for Integrated Marketing Communications, the author is suggesting that we need to go farther and deeper in coordinating marketing plans.

In the FastCompany post “How to Measure Brand Value: Likes, Followers, Influencers, Views? No, Social Currency” the author talks about a recent study on brand valuation conducted by Vivaldi partners in conjunction with MIT called Brand Social Currency. They show how brands with high loyalty and strong social currency command a price premium confirming the need for the tighter coordination of social brand activities.

But, it further states that brand advocates are more important than simply measuring followers and that not all brands will see an improvement in their value through social media. The reason: because putting social messaging into the proper context is important. In simpler words, a brand’s social activities need to help your prospects with something that is relevant to your brand.

I think this quote in the article from Erich Joachimsthaler, Founder and CEO of Vivaldi Partners sums it up well:

“Brand Social Currency is not about social media, not about buzz, not about tactics. It is so much bigger. It gets to a brand’s long-term sustainability. It’s about how customers relate to one another in the context of brands and how those brands, companies, products and people relate to customers … It’s an experiential, holistic concept that we have deconstructed and reconstructed to map to brand value.”

And there you have it: whether you call it “experiential branding” or “relational branding” as a colleague recently explained it to me, it is important to understand that we are no longer (if ever) in control.

In the end I think it comes down to what another colleague of mine called “Brand Enablement:” we should accept our role as brand stewards, accept that our brands live in the minds of the consumers and allow the process of co-creation to evolve. It doesn’t mean we can’t orchestrate the movement. In fact, we will likely work much harder but with greater and more rewarding outcomes.

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Liz Bedor

Liz Bedor is a content marketing strategist at NewsCred, based in New York City. With NewsCred, she’s helped enterprise brands including AXA, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Estée Lauder, IBM, Verizon, ADP and Office Depot conceptualize, implement and optimize their content marketing strategies. Prior to joining NewsCred, she worked in brand marketing and sales enablement for Salesforce.