Just over 300 brands were nominated for Social Brands 100 in 2012. This year, that figure rose to 715. The increase illustrates not only that more brands are engaged in social media, but also that social media has become a vital component in how many brands now do business.
"It feels like a far greater proportion (of brands) are getting to grips with engagement compared with a year ago," says Steve Sponder, managing director of specialist social-media agency Headstream, which compiles Social Brands 100. "They are getting their customer service right and creating content that, in some cases, is becoming as valuable as the products or services they are selling."
The 2013 Social Brands 100 rankings benchmarked brand engagement across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The best-performing brands engage in social-media activity across multiple platforms. All are active on Facebook, while 99% are present on Twitter and 94% on YouTube. These "essential" social networks are followed by Google+ and Pinterest, which are used by 60% of brands. Social networks such as Instagram and Foursquare are used by fewer brands.
Last year, Innocent was named the number-one brand in the survey. While it still ranks in the top 10, thanks to its engaging brand personality, Electronic Arts' smash-hit video game Battlefield 3 has come out top this year, in a very closely fought contest.
With a highly engaged and active community, Electronic Arts has demonstrated how it has become a brand that enters into a two-way conversation with its customers across social media, producing impressive results.
Yet only 20 points separated Battlefield 3 from the brand that ranked 100th.
The top half of the table is dominated by service brands - particularly those in the retail and travel sectors - including American Airlines, Thomas Cook UK, Thomson Holidays, Argos, Tesco, Aldi and Waitrose.
A greater proportion of brands are getting their customer service right and creating content that, in some cases, is becoming as valuable as the products or services they are selling.
The presence of so many brands from these sectors highlights the step change that has taken place in customer service, which represents one half of the social-media equation, alongside brands' marketing activity.
Many brands regard social media as vital to their customer-service teams. While the number of staff with direct responsibility for social media among brand marketing and communications teams remains relatively small, the number in customer-service teams trained in social media is growing rapidly.
Argos, the top-placed retail brand in the 2013 list, has a 14-strong customer-service team trained in social media. Social-media manager Emily Lewis says a large part of what social is about is recognising that it is a customer-service channel and that customers now expect a real-time response.
"Customers appreciate a quick reply. If customers write a letter it can take time to get a response. Email can be the same, but in social media, a response can be almost immediate. Even if the team is not sure of the answer there and then, at least they can pick a query up, acknowledge it and get back to them. Customers really appreciate an instant response and they know that you are engaging," says Lewis.
It's a similar story at American Airlines. Social communications director Jonathan Pierce says the company has expanded its team in response to an increased demand from customers for a 24/7 service on Twitter.
An empathetic response can go a long way… social media has allowed us to develop digital relationships with our customers, and we have many brand advocates who we talk to every day.
Like many brands, the airline might not always be able to provide an instant solution, but its ability to respond quickly to customer questions and complaints via social-media channels pays dividends.
"An empathetic response can go a long way in social media. We may not always have the answer immediately, but our customers see our commitment to finding it, and that's very important to us. Social media has allowed us to develop digital relationships with our customers, and we have many brand advocates who we talk to every day," says Pierce.
Customer service represents only half the business of social media, however. The fact that Electronic Arts' Battlefield 3 came out on top, and that brands such as Innocent, SEAT, the Dogs Trust charity and Rekorderlig cider are also in the top 20, shows the strength of the marketing side of social media and how a diverse range of brands can use it to talk to and win customers.
Simon Stokes, director of web and communities for Europe at Electronic Arts, says social media has been the most significant change in its marketing for Battlefield 3, which has sold more than 15m copies and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue since its release in October 2011.
"We were good at marketing our content before, but social media has changed the way we do it. We used to think that EA knows best, but now we engage in conversation with our fans who contribute so much to the community," says Stokes.
Brands find their voice
As well as consistency and increasing levels of engagement, a new level of maturity in the use of social media has emerged over the past 12 months. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of tone of voice.
How a brand talks to its customers, what it sounds like and the attitude it adopts can prove crucial to the success of a brand in social media. Mobile network EE illustrated this point when it launched a brand starting from scratch.
EE brand director Spencer McHugh says this was one of the exciting things about launching it in social media: "We thought about tone of voice a lot, alongside overall brand positioning in the market - opting for a combination of playful and purposeful. Often on social channels we need to be clear and straightforward about the complicated information that we have to deliver. But, at the right time, there is a place for playfulness, so it's about striking the right balance."
The next step for many brands is to grow these levels of engagement by developing strategies that are rooted in their core brand values. It is these brand strategies, combined with a strong customer-service ethic, that will win fans in the short term and create loyal customers in the future.
The 2013 social brands 100 top 10
1. Electronic Arts (Battlefield) - Entertainment
2. American Airlines - Travel
3. Lufthansa - Travel
4. Thomson Holidays (TUI) - Travel
5. Thomas Cook UK - Travel
6. Innocent - FMCG
7. Argos - Retail
8. SEAT Mexico - Automotive
9. Tesco - Retail
10. Dr Martens - Retail
The prominence of travel and retail brands in the top 10 shows how customer service has started to come of age in social media, but the position of EA at the top sends out a strong message about the importance of community and the rewards that brands can reap if they engage in a two-way conversation with their customers. One thing many of the brands in the top 10 have in common is the 'L' word. As American Airlines social communications director Jonathan Pierce says: "We've learned a lot from listening."
How to be successful in social media
With each release of Social Brands 100, the findings help bring to light best practice in social media.
1. Successful socialmedia brands have developed a light touch and a playful tone of voice that they balance with delivering serious information to customers.
At launch, one of the first tweets EE put out was how to pronounce its name. Newspapers were suggesting it was "EEE", and there were other variations. "We went out with an illustration that said 'e (take a breath) e'. It got a really positive reception and that helped set the tone of voice," says EE head of PR Matt Sears.
2. On Facebook, the brands that are doing well are those that show a willingness to quickly join in conversations that users start on their pages, as well as creating discussions based on their own content.
3. On Twitter, customer service is king. Brands that do well in 140 characters listen well and respond in real time as they recognise that customers like a quick comeback.
4. YouTube is still a missed opportunity for many brands, but remains a golden social opportunity as video represents the most shareable content and is used effectively by brands in the top 10.
5. Social CRM can be a powerful tool for customer engagement when properly implemented. Unlike traditional CRM, which is about managing the customer, social CRM is about collaboration and exchanging views with customers. This should be at the heart of the social-media strategy for brands.