Social media and what it might mean to your brand

May 2009

In last month’s comment I suggested that social networks ensured that there was now nowhere to hide for brands who try to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers. Make a mistake and don’t come clean, or don’t do what you should be doing and get found out, and just one person now has the power to start telling the ‘connected’ world about your sins.

What I didn’t mention last month, but will now, is an even worse scenario where someone actually thinks it’s clever to use social media to talk about what their brand is up to, but the rest of the world thinks it isn’t. When that happens, at best the brand is damaged and at worse it can put them out of business. For example, take our prime minister: He – or more probably one of his advisors trying to be trendy – took the decision to put himself onto You Tube. This was a bad decision for Gordon on a number of levels:

  • The man has the charisma and natural presentation skills of a floorboard – not then, arguably, ideal for this particular medium…
  • The content was dull (albeit the man might have had a point about trying to fix something the country was apparently none too happy about)

The brand didn’t fit the medium – a bit like your dad dancing at your wedding reception
But let’s not get too gloomy about this – far from it in fact: Social media sites – e.g. Facebook, You Tube, MySpace, LoveFilm and the big new kid on the block Twitter – present huge opportunities for brands. As with any relatively new opportunity though, there’s still much learning to do before anyone really knows all the rules. And actually perhaps nobody ever will – just when someone thinks they do the goal posts will move with a new online player coming on board with a different offer, or piece of technology most of us haven’t even dreamt of yet.

What we can say right now though, is that the value to brands of cleverly using social media is rather more diverse then many currently think. Here’s an example:

I have a client in the coffee business and for a number of years they’ve offered free samples of their rather clever Lyons ‘coffee bag’ (looks and works like a tea bag but contains real ground coffee). All you needed to do was go onto their website, fill in a few details, and a free sample would arrive through your letter box a week or so later. At best, the site would normally get about a dozen requests for free samples a week.

Then a few months back an everyday consumer, pleased with their free sample acquired through the same website, posted details about the freebie onto From there it ended up on similar sites, friends emailed friends about it, it was picked up on Twitter (yes people really are prepared to use their free time to chat online about a coffee bag…) and, within three weeks or so, the site had over 45,0000 requests for free samples and from 30 or more countries around the globe. The free samples were sent out (after some discussion with my client about the cost of that – which I’ll come back to) and a partly measurable sales increase is already coming through from the supermarkets (consumer gets free sample, enjoys the coffee, goes to Tesco to buy box of Lyons coffee bags – simple).

But although selling more coffee bags is obviously great news, the value of what happened goes beyond a simple and cost-effective way to sell more product: We suddenly had a very valuable database. And valuable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty big; secondly the majority of the people on it enjoy drinking coffee (not the whole database as clearly some people on it will go for anything ‘free’ – and certainly not blaming them for that); and thirdly the type of people prepared to fill in a form in the first place just to get one single free cup of coffee, are just the sort of people happy to give you ten minutes more of their time going forward.

On the last point, this was perfectly proven when I wanted to conduct some research for a potential new coffee product for the same brand. We emailed 400 people from the database, asked them to click on a link which went to a website, they then filled in a form and we had the invaluable info we needed. And how many out of the 400 helped us out with our free piece of research? About 160 within a week of asking (try stopping 400 people on the street with your clipboard and see how many hang around to answer your questions – it won’t be 160, that’s for sure).

For me, and my coffee client, the key learning from what happened can be summarised as follows:

  • We didn’t plan it – it just happened
  • We could have planned it – e.g. sent the link to ourselves (but in truth it hadn’t occurred to us)
  • When it happened it happened quickly – it really was a viral affect and we could literally watch and measure it as the requests for free samples were logged online
  • We couldn’t control what was happening (which actually made it very exciting) and once it started we couldn’t stop it unless we shut the facility off – and then the negative comment would have been very damaging to the brand
  • What people anyway said about us and the coffee was generally good, but it certainly wasn’t all good – some grumbled because we were slow to send the samples out (because we hadn’t planned for it – just think of the operational impact of going from 12 to 45,000 requests for free samples) and a few didn’t like the taste of the coffee
  • Culturally, the immediate impact of this ‘new thing’ on the business and what this showed about behaviour was very interesting, with one initial school of thought pushing for the free sample facility to be immediately shut down because of the cost of the samples and sending them out (a quick chat about why it was there in the first place, the value we’d get out of the exercise, and the damage done to the brand if we did pull it, quickly got everyone into the same place)
  • We’ve got a valuable database (for free – well, the cost of sending the samples out) that we can use in the future for product development and promotional offers etc.

For other brands the value of using social media has been very different and I read this week about US airline, JetBlue, using its own Twitter page to monitor its customers’ real time experiences to help manage customer service. For example, if a JetBlue customer is sat in terminal 1 at JFK and getting grumpy about a delayed flight and they’re signed up to Twitter, they can make their voice heard immediately and the airline can react then and there.

And the list could go on with examples of brands shooting home videos of their products and services and posting them on You Tube – even when the offer is B2B – to accounting firm Ernst and Young using Facebook for recruitment ads.

Actually though the example I love most is for T-Mobile and partly because of its relationship with ‘old’ media. You will have seen the ads on TV where hundreds of people are dancing in time in a railway station, well groups of friends have then gone on to do something very similar and posted the results onto You Tube. So take what the brand shows you, mess around with the idea, do your own thing with it, and then put it back in a place where the world can see it. For the T‑Mobile marketing team this must be dreamland stuff.

So social media for brands right now is big, getting bigger, can add value on many different levels and ways, is a friend and potential enemy at the same time, but to maximise the former and minimise the latter is something the brand owner can only ever have some degree of control over. What is for sure though is that the brand owner or marketer who dismisses this phenomenon as unimportant (as a columnist largely suggested recently in Marketing Week), does so at their peril.

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