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Social media has given brands a new medium in which consumers can be engaged. Most agree: there's something really important about this, even if we disagree on just what that is.

At the same time, social media has given consumers a powerful new tool for interacting with brands. It's now possible to provide feedback, issue praise and voice complaints in a manner that can have a real impact very quickly.

But what if some brands are paying too much attention to social media? Is it possible that the most vocal on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere not only don't represent the majority of consumers but might also be providing signals that go against what the majority believes?

AdAge.com has an interesting article that raises these very questions and offers up some hard data to demonstrate why brands should be asking them.

You may recall the uproar that occurred in the social media world when a Motrin ad discussing the pitfalls of carrying a baby in a sling and referring to the act as a fashion statement were discovered by some 'mommy bloggers'. The uproar reached a fever pitch on Twitter and Motrin, which is a Johnson & Johnson brand, relented. It pulled the ad and issued an apology.

Gene Grabowsk, who heads up the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, stated at the time:

We now have indisputable proof that online marketing, YouTube and Twitter and all that it encompasses is meaningful and has arrived.

Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang commented:

These tools allow advertisers to listen to what people are saying — and can provide free, instant feedback before they buy marketing efforts in traditional media.

But there's a problem, which Ad Age's Abbey Klaassen points out in her article: according to a survey conducted by Lightspeed Research, 90% of the women surveyed had never even seen the ad. After seeing it, 45% liked it, only 15% didn't like it. More importantly, 32% said the ad make them like the Motrin more compared to only 8% who thought less of Motrin after seeing it.

With actual data in hand, it's much more difficult to conclude whether or not Motrin made the right decision in pulling the ad. It had an ad that was relatively effective according to the survey data, but the qualitative response from a small but vocal group of moms was so poor that it's easy to see why Motrin made the decision that it did.

Motrin is not an isolated example.

Remember the Skittles Twitter experiment we wrote about here at Econsultancy? It created a lot of buzz amongst social media folks but according to a Communispace survey of 300 people, only 6% had ever heard that Skittles' turned its site into a Twitter feed. Interestingly, 64% of the Communispace audience surveyed had heard of Twitter but few were users and over 50% had learned about Twitter on TV.

Both Motrin and Skittles raise the question: are brands listening to the right people when they hone in on what people are saying on social media sites?

Depending on who you are and what you sell, the answer just might be an emphatic 'no'!

Klaassen observes:

...in the past month, the Twitter community has been titillated by South by Southwest, AT&T, "Lost" and the redesign of Skittles.com. Missing from the list are things the Communispace and Lightspeed surveys, both separately commissioned on Ad Age's behalf, found that the general population is fired up about, such as the AIG bonuses and the bank-bailout plans.

So what are brands to do? They're going to have to be more thoughtful, discriminating and strategic for starters. Social media shouldn't be ignored but at the same time it shouldn't be given more weight than it deserves.

If brands are going to use social media services to solicit feedback and make important decisions, they can't just take a qualitative approach. Hard data is needed. Just as focus groups are carefully selected and surveys are discounted if the sample size and sample makeup isn't representative, what people are saying about you on Facebook or Twitter can't be overestimated in the absence of quantitative data showing that what they're saying is representative of consumers at large.

By all means, listen. But think before acting. You can't please all of the people all of the time and most brands have always recognized that when it comes to traditional media channels.

For some reason, social media has them thinking differently. I think part of it has to do with the fact that traditional mediums aren't working quite like they used to and brands are worried. There is a media revolution taking place, consumers are feeling empowered and social media is important.

But far too many of us in the digital marketing community have spent the past years admonishing brands and basically telling them that they're stupid. We keep telling them that the consumer is in control, that they have to participate in social media and that if they don't listen to what people on Facebook, Twitter and blogs are saying, they'll find themselves in reputation hell.

And by golly, many of them have started to believe us. They're willing to pull ads when a handful of bloggers with a few thousand readers complain. They'll turn their homepages over to Twitter. They'll do a lot of things to avoid being labeled as 'not getting it'.

After reading AdAge.com's article, I'm finally ready to admit publicly that I'm not so sure I like it. We have brands far too scared.

If our job as digital marketers is really to help brands connect with consumers to produce meaningful interactions, relationships and yes, transactions, we can't have them acting out of fear. We shouldn't be telling them to listen to anybody with a blog. We shouldn't be telling them to use Twitter simply because we think they need to be on it. We shouldn't tell them that consumers on Facebook are more important than consumers who aren't 'connected'.

We should be telling them to apply common sense to decision-making and we should be telling them to implement social media strategies that are based on hard data and validated business cases. And as much as I love sites like Twitter and Facebook, if that means telling brands to ignore social media uprisings that threaten to create a 'tyranny of the few' dynamic when it comes to brand decision-making, so be it.

Photo credit: jamescronin via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 2 April, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2381 more posts from this author

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Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths, Digital Team Lead at Browser Media

Good article - risking potential backlash from digital agencies who are singing social media hymns from the Twittertops. But it underlines the basic principle that is 'engage your consumer via the most effective means'.

If your core demographic are on Twitter, get on there - but it doesn't yet seem to have harnessed the Bebo generation, which begs the question, why did Skittles bother?

And as far as the 'power' of social media goes, you will only harness this if you engage brain, then enter the social world. Brands have never been inherently 'sociable', so why do we think they can suddenly become their customers' best friends? Provoke interest, find your brand's voice, build a rapport, then start selling...

And as for the negative power of it all, yes you need to 'listen' to your consumers, but remember that these people are making noise to get attention - 'look at me, I'm a bit ker-azy!' - they like moaning, they like being 'controversial', yet would any of them actually do what your Mum does and go into a shop to complain? We need to understand the link between negative brand-bashing and real, financial impact.

Ultimately, brands shouldn't just 'do' social media because Stephen Fry said it's a bit nifty, but equally, we shouldn't underestimate the commercial benefit that intelligent social media strategy can yield. Just promote your brand to the right people in the right place.

@TomGriffola ;-)

over 7 years ago

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Marty P

A great read. You present a rational and sober thesis - that the loudest don't necessarily (perhaps even rarely) represnt the many.

I had to give this a sphinn.

over 7 years ago

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Christine Sierra

Excellent post.  I think you hit the nail on the head with this question: are brands listening to the right people when they hone in on what people are saying on social media sites? Marketing and branding has always been about reaching the right audience, no matter which channel you choose to use. 

We also did a quick review of Motrin based on sentiment of the tweets and didn't find it nearly as negative as you would have thought given the reaction.

There is no doubt social media sites have changed the way we interact with customers, but the key is to listen and learn and take a breath.  Just because the information flows real-time doesn't necessarily mean the  reaction should be real-time.

over 7 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/MobileEnterprise

Thought provoking article. I have been wondering for quite awhile now who is calling the social media shots. It seems to me that agencies sit in a somewhat privileged position whether as commentators, critics or fairweather friends. If an agency or agencies lambast a brand for supposedly doing wrong (and we've all jumped on that bandwagon at some point to offer our two pennies worth) who's the real loser? The agency and the advice that they gave to the brand for doing what they did? The critics for rounding on the brand (but why not round on the agency also)? The brand for not trusting themselves?

Who writes the rules, who decides what's a good use of social media and what isn't? Who has been back to the Skittles site recently? I did a moment ago, and between when they first put twitter onto their homepage and now, it's moved quite a few steps forwards. Who's brave enough to do that? We may not like what Mars did with Skittles, and we may not understand why they did it or what they were trying to gain from it, but if nothing else, we should pat them on the back for pushing the boundaries, for trying something different. It's more than most brands or agencies have done.

I use twitter everyday from a customer service perspective to engage with customers of Carphone Warehouse. I have no rules to follow. Sure, there are examples of other brands on Twitter using it in a way that works for them - Zappos, Scott Monty, Jet Blue, ASOS amongst a growing list. Do they have rules - I doubt it. If we followed the agencies, we'd all still be listening, searching for our relevance, trying to find our voice. I'm not saying that these things aren't relevant, they are. But when there are no rules, when a communication channel is evolving everytime someone or some brand uses it, what it is that you are listening for or looking out for? How do I know when I have listened enough, when I've found my voice, when I've found something relevant to say? 

Twitter and other social media tools are different, they do push the boundaries of what we know, but whether you are an agency or a brand, the equation that you apply to it is still the same as you would apply to any communication channel and how to use it to engage with your customer.

Understand your customer, understand what motivates them, understand where they go, understand what they are talking about, understand what their needs are. But don't hide behind a supposed lack of understanding because quite simply there's always more to understand. 

My advice, understand as you go along and adapt. Someone complains about Carphone Warehouse. There's no science behind my response, just empathy. Someone tweets that they're waiting in a queue in a Carphone store in Edinburgh. Theres' no science behind my response, except to try to understand what I would feel like if I was in that queue. Here's the exchange of tweets that took place today; I'm @guy1067 by the way:

@Placefarm: Waiting in massive queue in Carphone Warehouse to collect J's fixed phone. Bored:-(

@guy1067: Hi I wrk 4 Carphone. Sorry abt the wait, hopefully not 2 long. Why not listen 2 twtr song, turn up sound.. http://bit.ly/YXmGn 

@Placefarm: Ha! You've made me feel better about waiting. Wasn't the shop's fault anyway - the customers were being brainless.

There's no science. There's no rules. Just empathy and giving it a go. Sometimes I'll get it right and sometimes I wont - simple as that. We're all in this together, let's not forget that.

over 7 years ago

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Christopher Rollyson

One thing I've learned after spending 20+ years working with disruptive technology: it changes some things drastically, some a bit and some not at all.  Here, what has not changed is the need to understand and rank who your stakeholders are.. and how they are adopting.  Your article shows that many mass brand customers are clueless about social media (no surprise).  What has changed is word of mouth is digital and, hence, big megaphone.  It can influence influencers in disruptive ways.  Web 1.0 provides a roadmap for those looking for it: "the Internet" began as a hived off activity that was eventually integrated (mindshare-wise at least) into legacy activity.  Web 2.0 will follow a similar path metaphorically.  Thanks for raising this point.. very valuable! Cheers

over 7 years ago

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Brad Stanford

Great discussion!

Even if only 5% of a total audience complains about an ad - what is the power held by that 5%? Assuming a bell curve, let's say the top 5% of a brand's audience wil willigly post good things about the brand. It still will not counter the furry of the 5% of those who are not happy with the brand. The rest of the 90% won't care either way, they just use the brand. That vocal 5% can be a serious problem for marketing.

It's not the number of people but their volume and persistence. This is the new empowerment talked about here. Just like a tv interview used to make unknown people suddenly famous, the web can be a large micorphone for both the lovers and haters of the brand. The question is who is more motivated to make noise? The key here will be to identify and support the happy 5% so that they are daily making inroads for you brand. Then, when trouble comes, the unhappy 5% won't have near the audience they need to cause you trouble.

Unless, of course, you truly blew it!

over 7 years ago

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Raj Iyer

I completely understand your point and why you are rethinking this after reading the AdAge articel. I myself have been promoting social media channel but we have to understand that brand loyalty is far bigger than all this. As much as I would expect companies to embrace social media as a channel for their marketing and customer service, they need to treat this as any other channel we use in our business. Jumping into quick conclusions just based on a portion of audience from social community is not the bright way of making decisions. 

On top of it, comments made on social networks are effect of many factors including emotional consumers who still feel strongly for the brand but share their views due to some recent experience and that can be taken as a false data point in decision making.

I am glad you shared this with us.

Thanks.

over 7 years ago

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Michael Myers

Good article. A couple things stand out in my opinion. Twitter is just really beginning and that is why you have the focus on the subject matter SXSW that you do. The masses are not there yet and that is why they did not know about the Skittles site (and that is why the data looks the way it does). The user base is still predominantly technophiles. The other thing that is very important to remember is that good design (of any type) should be polarizing. Roughly half should love it and half should hate it. Johnson and Johnson had a great opportunity to have a very public conversation with their consumers. The conversation part is the strength that the new web brings.

Also, we all know we don't own our brands anymore and if we aren't ready to be transparent and participate in the online conversation, we should expect a limited online user base. The truth is that communities build brand depth and increase this depth in many ways. It is not comfortable for most businesses and yet this has been going on for years. Used to be the watercooler and now it is online. At the very least brands (specifically brand persona's) can participate.

over 7 years ago

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MediaAgility

A good post. Need of the day is for a tool or product that can help businesses decide which critisim to ignore and which one reflects the sentiments of other consumers as well. Easier said than done, how do businesses master the art of taming this phenomenon in their favor? Without the help of right tools and experienced professionals there is no easy way.

over 6 years ago

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