Why brands need a social media reality check

There are many theories about the potentially exponential power of social media. However, brands and advertisers need a reality check - such power is merely potential, and examples of it becoming genuinely exponential are rare.

Just saying 'we should be on Facebook' is not good enough
Just saying 'we should be on Facebook' is not good enough

So, whilst the execution of communications through social media is not magic, it does require thought, investment and time. With something as many-headed and fast-changing as the generic "social media", it is both inadvisable and impossible to come up with rules to define how brands can best tap into its potential. However, there are some key lessons that can be a useful guide.

It’s called "earned" media for a reason. You have to earn retweets, likes and viral communication. As your mother told you, you cannot expect something for nothing.

If you want to get positive earned media, you need to build credibility in other areas and / or have really outstanding content. This will not guarantee that people want to follow or like your brand, but it is a good starting place.

You also need to look before you leap. You need a clear social media strategy that starts with the outcomes in mind. "Twexponential" communication is never going to happen if your brand does not have a social presence.

Saying, "look at the power of this, we should be on Twitter/Facebook/etc. etc" is not good enough. Like any medium you choose, it is necessary to define what you want to accomplish with social media before you leap. Exponential communication is only one possibility.

While it is unlikely to result directly in purchase, you might, like the New York Times, use it to idea-generate through crowd sourcing. You might use it to create brand warmth or advocacy. But, unless you know what your goals are, you will never know when you have arrived.

Social is for life, not just for Christmas. To achieve these goals, it needs to be managed. This means that, if you want to exploit what social media has to offer, then you probably need to employ someone to do this (full time).

At least one someone. This is especially the case for business to consumer brands (or readers or sports fans, etc.).Depending on the volume of traffic, you may need more than one person.

The ongoing management is important because it has to stay fresh. We all have become accustomed to a faster speed of change. But, this is especially important if you’re targeting people under 25.

As our Youth in Transition research shows, the younger consumers have an expectation that there will be something new: they are looking for the next big thing. If it is not fresh, you are unlikely to outlive the initial forward / re-tweet.

All of this fresh content also has to be simple. We know from our lessons learned on brand communication in general that simplicity cuts through better. If it is complicated, you have lost most of your audience before you are even out of the gate. Given the character number limitations, this is even truer for social media.

Social has to be involving. This is partly about the content – remember fresh simplicity – but also about the category. For example, washing powder is going to have a more difficult time to capitalize on this platform than a fashion brand, which has actively sought new news all of the time.

If you're not using social media yourself, get in. Experience it on a personal level.

David Ogilvy once said, "The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife." We should be saying "The consumer is you". If you, as a person, think something is not engaging, it is unlikely to be so. When you first sign-up for any of the many social networking sites, you may follow lots of industry-related content.

But ultimately, when you get home and put on your dressing gown to relax, consider: which ones are you really reading? I would bet that the ones that catch your interest most are seldom the brand feeds.
Should your brand be using social media? Absolutely, but only if your presence is supported by thought, investment and commitment to the platform. Do not just throw something out there for the sake of it: if you put nothing in, you will get nothing out. But if you use it well, you have the opportunity to create advocates that repay your hard work and thought by sharing your content with their friends, family, fans and followers.

Tara Beard-Knowland is a director at Ipsos MORI ASI