A view from Gordon MacMillan

Forget a social strategy - it's what a brand has to say that really matters

If 2012 has been about shaping and developing a social-media strategy, then 2013 will be about throwing that out of the window and starting again.

Why? Simple. The very term social media has become a stumbling block. It gets in the way of the real question of what it is that brands are trying to achieve. Partly this has happened because social media means different things to different people - and it means multiple things to brands.

Part of the problem is clearly illustrated by the split personality that social media can have as far as brands are concerned.

Social is viewed both as a way to market to consumers, in that it is a channel in the same way as TV, direct or online advertising, and as a customer-service platform - where it has become a place for growing numbers of consumers to vent their dissatisfaction with brands.

When I talk about starting again, I am talking about the questions being asked. All too often, the questions that brands, and some of their agencies, ask about social media are the wrong ones.

In so many cases, the focus seems to be about what presence the brand should have, or about the platform - whether the brand should be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, Instagram or Tumblr, for example.

In 99% of cases it seems that it is the Facebook option that gets a big 'like', with Twitter, YouTube and others following. This approach, of putting the platform first, is partly the reason why some brands have had high-profile social-media fails in 2012. 'Intimate hygiene' brand Femfresh, which experienced a social-media backlash to its 'Whatever you call it, make sure you love it' campaign, was a case in point. It opened shop on Facebook without much of a plan and came unstuck.

Message before channel

The starting point should always be about what the brand is going to say, the idea and brand story. It should, in other words, always be about the content. Whether you call this content marketing, branded content or brand journalism, it doesn't matter. That's what it should be about.

Saying this is nothing new. Bill Gates said 'content is king' back in 1996. He predicted that all companies would become publishers. He was right, if a little early. It is only since the arrival of social media, and these platforms, that this has really become possible.

I wrote at the start that 2013 will be about throwing 'social media' out of the window, and I meant that - specifically, the language itself, because when you talk about having a social-media strategy, you are talking about the wrong thing.

Brands need content strategies, not social-media ones. In the same way, they need customer-service strategies. Social media is merely where you choose to put that content, and its arrival, as Gates predicted, has created a great many opportunities for brands to become publishers.

Just take a look at the US, where the content-marketing debate is more advanced, with brands such as Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Ford and American Express, to name a few, all having developed successful content-marketing strategies.

That means always starting with the idea, which shouldn't change simply because you want your brand to be active in social-media channels. It is exactly as John Lewis marketing director Craig Inglis was talking about earlier this year, when he told Marketing that 'entering into social media never replaced having a big idea' and bringing that idea to life.

Aside from technology, in terms of the rapid adoption of tablets and the arrival of 4G, branded content is the most significant discussion that has taken place within the social-media debate in 2012. It is the one that all brands and their agencies should be having, and 2013 should be about putting the results into practice.

Gordon MacMillan is social-media editor at the Brand Republic Group and editor of The Wall blog @thewalluk. Follow him on Twitter: @gordonmacmillan