Close-Up: Taking social media to the next level

At the World Social Media Forum, Will Orr learnt how brands can stop adding to 'the noise' and start adding value to their business.

When the opening speaker referred to a quote he'd "leveraged from Oscar Wilde", I had my first inkling that the World Social Media Forum held at London Olympia last month was going to be an occasionally surreal experience.

Over the two days, I learnt a lot of useful stuff. I also learnt that it's important to preface all adjectives with "super" and that the preferred unit of measurement is "a tonne" - pretty much every speaker professed to having "a tonne of respect for Facebook".

There was also an alarming subtext to the forum that, in a postmodern sort of way, was social media itself. No speaker could seemingly get a sentence out without being misquoted or slagged off by the constantly Tweeting audience. It seems it's still enough just to be Tweeting and publishing, with little regard for quality or accuracy. I think and hope that as the sparkly newness of social media recedes, the focus will be on adding value rather than adding to the noise. "The noise", and its potential to create a backlash, is something touched on by several speakers. More of this later.

As the day progressed, there were some clear themes rising above the noise of the incessant tapping keyboards. For those of you for whom these are old news, I look forward to being vilified on Twitter.

1. Social media is part of a marketing plan, not an end in itself.

The question is not "what's our Facebook strategy?" but "how can social media support our commercial or brand objectives?"; and not "what should we blog about?" but "who are we trying to talk to?".

2. ROI is going to be king in proving the value of this activity to hard-bitten boards. Agencies that can "do" ROI will win. Not surprisingly, therefore, there's a plethora of measurement tools to choose from with, according to the experts, wildly varying quality.

3. Social media is forcing companies to align departments more than ever before. In this space, marketing and customer services, for example, are overlapping (or not, in the cases of Eurostar or Toyota). Advertisers from the likes of Marks & Spencer, Virgin and Ikea all talked about the need to set up cross-department working groups to make social media work.

4. For big companies, social media presents a huge challenge of ceding control. It's culturally hard to unravel layers of approval processes when the conversation is immediate and ongoing. It's also challenging for companies to be authentic and transparent, something that social media demands. Coca-Cola, Starbucks, The Carphone Warehouse, Best Buy and Dell were companies regularly name-checked for doing social media well despite their size.

5. Authenticity came up a lot. Social media is forcing companies to distil what they're really about. It is, after all, hard to be authentic until you have worked out who you are and what feels "true" for your brand. This requirement for authenticity also requires dedicated resource - as newspapers die on their arse, it seems there's a new career for journalists becoming the "voice of the brand".

6. It's about ongoing conversation, not about "a campaign". It's about "always on, rather than burst". This again creates huge challenges in terms of resource. Social media requires "365, 24/7" monitoring, something that most clients admitted they'd outsourced to their social media agencies.

7. You need custom-made content to be effective in this space. The days of "running the ads" on the web are no longer enough.

8. Mobile and GPS will take social media to the next level. Things such as Foursquare, while growing rapidly, are perhaps a precursor to location-based services of genuine utility and value.

9. Most importantly, it's still about having great ideas that engage, educate, entertain and solve business problems. This is the shakeout that will happen in this space. As several people said, "there's a lot of rubbish out there", a lot of "noise signifying nothing". Apparently, only 4 per cent of Facebook pages have more than 10,000 fans; and, of the 500,000 Facebook apps out there, just 1,000 have more than 100,000 users. In case you missed it, look at how many people have interacted with the Kingsmill "confessions" online campaign.

This was my overriding impression. We're approaching the end of the "if it's social media, it must be good" phase. As people realise they can no longer sustain the bombardment of brands trying to talk to them in social media, the cream of the ideas will rise to the top. Advertisers will have to get it right, not just tick a box, and along with their agencies, they'll be judged on increasingly rigorous ROI.

There was also an interesting sense that the current rate of innovation will be unsustainable from a consumer's point of view. Thomas Power, the chairman of Ecademy, talked about the stress of "keepingupness" and the unsustainable quest for the "latest, greatest, newest, fastest" as something that will be replaced with a demand for more intimate, targeted, quality experiences in social media.

So what might all this mean for agencies in general?

The "always on" conversational nature of this space creates challenges for traditional agencies. As Alex Miller, the head of social media at i-level's Jam, puts it: "One of the big barriers for traditional media and creative agencies in this space is that they're not used to direct contact with the end consumer. Social media is all about conversations and relationships with real people every single day, it's not about trading with media owners or listening in on focus groups."

Meanwhile, a number of agency types I spoke to are hoping to be welcomed into the arms of big network agencies in the next couple of years, so I suspect this new skillset will be quickly acquired and integrated into the mainstream.

There's also no doubting the opportunity for more traditional agencies to start bringing in the new skills with a new generation of hires (many of whom will be in their early twenties). Miller continues: "We employ people from PR, customer services, customer research, media, SEO and design as well as the digital natives, for whom this is nothing new. It's when you get this mix of people and skillsets all working together that the potential of social media is realised. And the really interesting thing for me is the young talent that is rising through our agency: very creative people, who have big ideas about how to capture consumers' attention but at the same time design, program, build and distribute their ideas effectively across the social web."

Talking of "ones to watch", the speakers who really stood out were the ones who seemed genuinely excited by the possibilities of social media and determined to use it for the benefit of consumers rather than to add to "the noise".

As for me, I feel "super"-excited to see how it pans out and have a "tonne of respect" for all concerned (particularly Facebook, you understand). I'm also a little nervous that anyone reading this will have a go at me in any number of digital channels. If that happens, I'll take solace in a quote I "leveraged" from Oscar Wilde on social media: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

- Will Orr is the former chief executive of WCRS.


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