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The shift to sociability

Why do organisations need to exploit, not throttle, the communications changes brought about by new technology?

Change is a difficult challenge for any business or sector to face up to. Human nature compels us to fear it rather than embrace it, and often with good reason.

The statistics on marketing spend from Q1 2008 provide a real indicator of this shift. According to the Bellweather report from this period, marketing budgets have fallen for the second consecutive quarter and have been downgraded for the rest of the year. This is no surprise given the economic uncertainty of the time, but the true story lies beneath the surface.

While we read about the death of traditional advertising and the shift away from direct mail, the biggest budget drop can be found in a category which includes PR and market research. The star performer so far this year has been the internet where spend is increasing in both volume and as a proportion of overall allocation.

Indicators of change
So what does this mean? Maybe nothing – it could be a short-term trend. Or maybe, in a time where banks are facing instability and retail sales are falling, marketers look for a channel which gives them more bang for their buck. Or maybe we're seeing the early stages of a trend which will change our industry forever.

Basing a huge assumption like this on  spend in two quarters would, of course, be foolish to the extreme, but we are doing so in the context of major behavioural changes which are happening right before our eyes.

The internet is the most disruptive communications technology since the telephone and there is little doubt that it will go on to take the all-time prize very soon (if it hasn't already). Added to this, technology is affordable, converging and entering all areas of our lives. This inevitably changes the way we behave, particularly with regard to our consumption of information.

Consider the facts. We now go online for up-to-the-minute news – if it's in the papers it's already a day old. Many of us conduct, expand and control our relationships within the walled gardens of social networks. Blogs have made it simple for anybody with an opinion to tell the world and be heard. Email, instant messaging tools and internet telephony have replaced letters and fixed-line phones as our favoured communications tools. Google gets far more eyeballs than prime Superbowl advertisement slots could ever hope for (especially if you've used Tivo or Sky+ to filter the ads). YouTube is also the most viewed video/TV channel anywhere by a colossal margin.

People use Last.FM to share music and gig preferences; Facebook to get back in touch with old friends; Twitter to keep updated on what's happening at any given time; and Digg to create their own versions of online news and information sites, tailored to their preferences.

Fundamental changes
It's not just the way we do these things that has undergone a transition. Our approach to information has also changed considerably. The content overload caused by the above has turned us into a society of thin slicers, who scan information and hop from source to source to find what we want. If it's not relevant and compelling, we move on in seconds. We're more promiscuous and unforgiving than ever before.

The most important sub-elements within this shift are inclusion and interaction. Datamonitor estimated that by the end of 2007 230 million of us belonged to an online social network; Pyramid Research predicts that by 2012 950 million of us will access these services via mobile devices; and there are, at the current time of writing, 113 million blogs tracked by Technorati.

These numbers, however, are already out of date (and when I look back at this article in even a year's time, I'll probably be quite embarrassed by how basic and backward it seems!).

The reason for this is the sheer speed at which the space is developing. A new blog is created every second and millions of posts are recorded each day. While this represents stellar growth, there is an even more important (and in many ways frightening) fact: any one of these posts could be talking about you, your company, your staff, your service or your products.

Here lies the crux of the problem faced by businesses, marketing departments and agencies alike: like it or not, we are all having to face up to a major loss of control.

While we have all become dab hands at media and reputation monitoring, 'traditional' media now represent a tiny slice of the overall coverage pie. Newspapers, magazines and broadcast channels are all dwarfed in number by blogs and social networking forums, all of which are largely unregulated, subjective and incredibly knee-jerk in the way they report news and views. Try as we might, we can never monitor them all.

Dell. Apple. Wal-Mart. The UK government. David Hasselhoff. Steve Jobs. HBOS. George W Bush. All have been damaged by these new communications channels. Show me an organisation or high-profile figure that hasn't faced real, brand-damaging criticism and I'll show you somebody who hasn't been looking hard enough. Healthcare companies are not immune and some of the largest have been hit by online chatter turning into direct criticism.

Turning negative to positive
To focus on the negative is extremely one-dimensional. Barack Obama, for example, has not been successful at raising campaign funds and galvanising support purely because of his charisma or policies. Take a look at his website and see just how social in nature it is. How it draws curious parties in, turning them from interested observers to motivated participants.

Equally, cast an eye over how a European operator like Saga (which sells holidays and financial services to a tightly-defined target audience of over 50s) has drawn actual and potential customers into the brand. It has created Saga Zones, a social network (or Facebook for the over fifties), which delivers value and shared experiences for users, but which also keeps them captive in a controlled environment and aligns them with the Saga vision.

Both represent successful deployments of technology, applications and creativity which do things that traditional marketing techniques have found extremely difficult to achieve.

The key realisation is that new marketing channels can be both positive and negative: to view them as predominantly one over the other is extremely dangerous. A sword and shield approach is what's needed.

Integration, integration, integration
While the above are tools that are becoming increasingly popular, it's important to understand that social media, Web 2.0, interactive services – call them what you will – are not islands. Whatever the strategy in this area, it needs to be integrated with marketing, customer service, support, business strategy; in fact everything an organisation does.

The reason for this is down to behaviour. We don't throw marketing messages at people; where we will sell is via personal recommendation; where customer service is delivered via dialogue; and where we market with the permission, collaboration and endorsement of our message recipients.

That's why Google puts new applications online before they are finished; why Burger King unleashes a Simpsons-branded viral where you can transform yourself into a character. These new tactics draw customers in and give them a stake. Whether it's in defining the ultimate look and feel of a product, immersing themselves in the brand environment or feeling their voice is heard, they feel included. Then they tell people all about it. They are your best and most credible endorsement if you keep them onside.

The problem with healthcare
Being a recent recruit to Ruder Finn, I came from the tech space, where much of this is taken for granted. Technology companies are generally young in comparison with other organisations, most haven't been around for 10 years (let alone 100, like some major corporations). They don't usually have the ingrained processes and traditions which would make change in this area so daunting for other industries. Equally they live and breathe innovation. But very few have got the balance right in this area, which shows the size of the task ahead for those in less advanced markets.

In areas like pharmaceutical PR, the task is even harder. How, when you can't openly promote products and are hamstrung by legislation around drug use and results, can you open yourself up to possible criticism and feedback?

There are ways and means, many of which can bear fruit. If you look at the Webby awards this year (the online industry Oscars) there are both pharma and healthcare, which proves how successful socially-oriented campaigns can be and also how they can be executed within the rules.

Companies such as Amerifit and Allergan are shortlisted for product and issues-based campaigns, drawing on key elements such as advocacy, inclusion and patient support to deliver comprehensive brand experiences. In healthcare, a number of NGOs and health bodies are engaging supporters and those in need of help through interactive media.

Larger bodies and businesses are notable by their absence. It may be that they just weren't entered, they were not as innovative or that they just aren't doing it on the same level as their smaller, more nimble and less risk averse competitors. However, the fact remains that companies in this sector don't seem to have embraced online channels in the way that other industries have.

Yet, try they must, as they are no longer the masters of their own destinies where communications are concerned. There is a balance to be struck, but this can't be a barrier to progress.

Getting started
So, to recap, when embarking on a social media strategy, getting to know the landscape is always the best start:

• Perform a quick Google blog search on your company – what does it reveal? It's odds-on that there are conversations happening that you are not party to. In order to monitor these moving forward, it's best to use RSS.

• Sign up to a free RSS feed monitoring service, such as Bloglines. RSS is basically a way of creating or tapping into feeds of relevant information from across the web and the blogosphere. So perform your Google blog and news searches as above, and hit the little orange RSS button once you've done them. Then follow the process of importing those feeds into your Bloglines reader.
• This will give you your own personalised monitoring page and you can add to it with any blogs or areas of interest simply by clicking on the RSS symbols displayed on them. This will ensure all relevant content and news comes directly to you as it appears.

Next steps
To propose a one-size-fits-all approach would be foolish – all individuals and companies are different and their ideal social media mix will differ. Here's a good way to get a taste of what's out there and how it fits together:

• Start blogging – you needn't expose all your thoughts to the world, as blogs can be closed communities or password protected. The best way to get to know your way around is to try it, so sign up to a free Blogger or Wordpress account. If you want some password protection or more advanced facilities, TypePad is good – you will need to pay a monthly subscription for this. Then follow the instructions to build your blog and start adding thoughts and content.

• Sign up to a media sharing site – Flickr is popular – and start uploading your photos and sharing them with friends and family. Once you've done this, you can link your Flickr account to your blog very easily to add a more pictorial element to it.

• You're probably already a member of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or Linkedin, the major social networking sites. These are a great way to see how relationships develop and grow online, and are an essential part of the social media landscape. If you aren't a member, either sign up or ask somebody to show you how it works and how they use it, as they are invaluable in understanding consumer online behaviour.

• Once you have an insight into these key areas, it's time to start micro-blogging. Twitter is an increasingly popular free service allowing you to follow friends, colleagues and people of interest – all of whom post in a maximum of 140-character updates. It's the type of thing you have to see in order to understand its importance, but it's definitely worth signing up and following a few people for a week to get used to it. What's more it's integrated with mobile phones via SMS, so can get highly addictive.

Things to consider
Before you start looking at social media as a viable set of channels to reach your audience, it pays to ask yourself a few questions:

• Why am I doing this? Is this a viable route to hitting my business and marketing goals? Am I just doing this because I think I should? You would be forgiven for thinking that 'social media' is the answer to every question in marketing circles according to some, but it has to be right for you and tie into your aims.

• Who am I trying to reach? Social networking is self-segmenting, in that you can drill down to niche groups who are defined according to interests. It is a sophisticated set of channels therefore, so it pays not to be too generic and to ensure your audience is clearly defined.

• How will this enhance other business and marketing activities? Social media works best when it is integrated, if it stands out like a sore thumb, it won't look credible.

The rest – how the campaign looks, feels and the mix of media used – is up to you.
But remember the Five 'I's...

• Inclusivity – focus on your audience, draw them in and encourage them to pass on the good news
• Interaction – allow them to become part of the brand experience
• Integration – ensure that it maps onto your business strategy and does not stand alone
• Insight – look at what your audience really wants and tap into it
• Insulation – ensure you are comfortable with the levels of participation without imposing excessive control.

The author:
Nick Leonard is managing director of Ruder Finn UK
He can be contacted at or on +44 (0)20 7462 8900

14th November 2008


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