A recent study by Netpop Research serves to only further assert the fact that social media is rapidly changing the way brands operate, due to the increase of consumer control.

The report is purely US-based, but it certainly seems fair to suggest that this trend can be applied globally, as there is an ever-growing permeation of social media into daily consumer life. The study concludes that there is a shift in consumer internet usage from entertainment towards communication, and it’s being driven by social media and networking sites.

It’s fair to say that the basis of this research is built upon solid data from over 4,000 respondents, across a wide range of demographics and, although what we’re currently seeing is only just the tip of the iceberg, it provides enough insight to prevent companies crashing Titanic-like on the rocks.

One of the opening statements by Netpop asserts:

Consumers are spending more of their time online communicating. Not playing. Not shopping. Communicating… the trend is clear.

With the uptake of the likes of Digg, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc (all covered in the study), users are increasingly communicating about brand experiences, products and services, both positively and negatively. Brands need to figure out how best to participate in such an environment.

The growth and power of social media means that brands are becoming more heavily reliant upon consumers for survival, increasingly so in the current economic climate, therefore reaching out to brand evangelists cannot be underestimated. With the massive uptake of social media amongst consumers being used for communication, the weaker brands that fail to recognise, adapt and engage with this behavioural shift are likely to suffer.

Those who do experiment and embrace – such we’ve seen this week with Skittles – are perhaps more likely to prosper (take note, Ryanair). Of course it’s early days and there are many doubters, but if word of mouth ever meant anything before this whole internet thing happened, then surely it matters even more today. Measuring results is key, and we await the results from campaigns like Skittles.

The outdated model of companies dictating to consumers now very much seems to be approaching its last legs. Econsultancy has talked about this for some time now, along with the fact that brands really need to wake up to the fact that social media is evolving at a tremendous pace.

Consumers can now openly challenge brands in an environment where there is scope to make a massive amount of noise (and more so if the consumer is ‘influential’). Companies can’t gag users, or ignore them. It is feasibly possible to hold brands to a certain extent of reputation ransom, at least for those firms that care about their reputations (not all do). Despite this, a number of brands appear to be unaware that communicating poorly (or not at all) with customers is far from being a great strategy, but one they continue to follow.

So is social media worth the effort? Well, advertisers tend to follow crowds and the
smarter marketers understand the power of influence. We think social
media is more than a bunch of hot air, though it won’t be right for
every brand (I very much doubt the big oil companies are going to ‘do a
Skittles’ anytime soon).