It's quaint to think that during his bid to retain the US presidency in 2004, George W Bush reported hearing "rumours on the, err, internets". In 2008, just four years later, he was succeeded by a man of legendary rhetoric, armed with a BlackBerry firing out Tweets.
Social media is that big a game-changer. Its constant patter of following, fanning and status reports has become the story of the web, even of our lives, over the past few years. Brands have been fast to experiment with them, and with good reason: they provide all of us with low-cost ways to reach consumers and build lasting relationships. Many brand owners have rushed in with an improvised, suck-it-and-see approach. However, it's time for that rush to slow down, for brand owners to ask themselves: why are we doing this? Now is a time for caution.
Make no mistake: social media is huge and will continue to be. ComScore has reported that Twitter grew 1,100 per cent in the UK during 2009.
According to Hitwise, British web users visit Facebook almost as much as they do Google UK. And they're not just using computers. The GSM Association found that in December 2009, 4.99 million people browsed 2.6 million Facebook pages on their phones, compared with 4.57 million unique visitors to Google UK mobile sites.
Brand owners have welcomed the new platforms with wide-open arms. Starbucks has well over five million fans on Facebook, while Coca-Cola has nearly four million, according to Big Money. On Twitter, you can follow restaurant chains, museums and newspapers, among others.
But what do these numbers mean, if anything? And is it all good news? Well, no, it's not. In March this year, Nestle, in its eagerness to attract brand fans, highlighted negative comments from environment activists concerned about the company's use of palm oil. After a stream of negative comments and something of a slanging match between posters and the page admin, Nestle posted the comment: "Social media: as you can see, we're learning as we go." Aren't we all to some degree?
In addition, as UK politics sought its version of Barack Obama, politicians discovered that it takes more than a Twitter account to win an election.
For example, there was the Conservative Party's attempt to trend #cashgordon in order to discredit the former Prime Minister. Twitter users read the attempt as insincere and instead turned their ire on the Tories. Later, the Labour hopeful Stuart MacLennan saw his bid for Parliament dashed after a number of his rather unsavoury Tweets were uncovered.
Today, these make slightly amusing news stories, as long as you're not a Nestle board member or one of the politicians mentioned. But in future, this approach won't be good enough, by a long shot. The future will involve a great deal more sophistication.
Signs are that the phenomenon we refer to as "social media" will just be another part of the web. We've witnessed Levi's adoption of Facebook's new Open Graph technologies, and heard the news that easyJet plans to pay-enable its Facebook app. In those cases, social isn't separate from sales strategy: it's central to it. And it blurs the line between brand-owner website and social media platform.
How do we navigate our way through this future fraught with promise and confusion? It's simple. Rather than looking forward, eyes agog at possibilities as yet unproven, perhaps it's time to do just the opposite. Perhaps it's time to take a deep breath and look back, to reconsider what we have learned from past lessons in digital. The wheel may be shinier than before, but it's still round. Let's not reinvent it.
It all starts with the brand itself. Sure, we need to embrace change, to become experts and evangelists of the new technology, but we creative agencies must remind our clients in the sweetest possible way that it's the brand, stupid. We, and they, must remember to answer the basic questions: what is the brand; who is it for; how is it used; what's good about it; and how does it delight its customers? What question does the brand answer? Work that out and you'll know, every step of the way, how the brand will benefit from digital technology and trends present and future.
Of course, we're really excited about the future of digital and, yes, future social media. It's a bit like those early days of the internet, when anything and everything was possible. As digital creatives, it is our duty to excite our clients similarly about the possibilities of this new, New World. But we also think it's our duty to encourage a thoughtful, mature approach, to let those brand fundamentals guide our creative and technical executions.
As an incoming political party leader once quipped to his outgoing counterpart: "You were once the new." It's a bit like that for us in digital; not long ago, people referred to us as "new media". Really, as an industry, we're not so new. Sequence has been trading for 15 years now, and in that time we've all seen a lot of next big things. We've all watched nothing technology grow into something, and great big promises disappear in a puff of vapour.
Through all that change, brand fundamentals have remained at the heart of successful campaigns, regardless of platform. As much as we need to anticipate future developments, we must also remember those branding lessons of the past. Be daring, be creative, be experimental, yes; but before you become breathlessly excited by buzzwords and the shape of technology to come, take a moment, inhale, remember your brand fundamentals and proceed with care.
- Make no mistake: social media is huge and is here to stay
- But it's time to reconsider what we have learned from digital
- The wheel may be shinier than before, but it's still round.
- Richard Baker is the founder and managing director, Howard Scott is the digital marketing director and Mark Johnson is the creative director at Sequence