Wholesome Marketing Ideas, Bite Size

Wholesome marketing ideas, bite size

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The social media genie is out of the bottle

If your brand hasn't yet got the hang of social media, you’re out of the loop, and you're in good company. Few brands have figured it out.

You've tried your hand at Facebook and Youtube and Twitter,  where your consumers are spending their time and getting their information, and where you have accounts.

So you’ve seen your online media budget balloon, and the newly recruited twenty-something “social media manager” has begun to help clue your business in to metrics, referrals, SEO, benchmarks, and so on.

And that’s all you need to do if you believe social media are like mass media: you buy eyeballs and target your message at them.

But you’d be missing the point. And it might come back to poke you.

Social media are not about shifting your message to a new medium; the revolution is not about re-allocating the media budget. The fundamental shift is in how your brand engages with the market; and it's not what you're used to.

The amply chided Cluetrain Manifesto got at least one thing right at the dawn of the W.W.Web: markets are conversations. Or at least, they have the potential to be conversations now that we have social media.

Take the bottled water industry, for instance.

I recently finished writing a case study on the marketing messages in this industry. The idea is to have my students grapple with the issues raised by social media marketing, by adopting different positions -- that of a brand, that of consumer activist, that of environmentalist, and that of regulator. But “writing” is perhaps overstating the case. Because even though the case takes almost two hours to review, it is fewer than 500 words long. I “assembled” the case study from a selection of the vast amount of video materials shared as part of the public discourse on social media sites.
The materials include ads and PR statements from the bottled water companies, news and media coverage of the bottled water industry, as well as videos posted by consumer groups, and social and environmental activists.

The bottled water market conversation emerges as a messy and prolific cacophony of often conflicting interests and viewpoints. A far cry from the staid, uni-directional, mono-message, mass media world in which brands grew up in the 20th century.

The chart below shows the evolution of the size of the U.S. bottled water market. As you can see, it grew at a steady clip from about $2.5 billion 20 years ago, to about $11.5 billion in 2007. 

And then, just when the bottled water companies were getting used to double-digit growth, making investments in plant, machinery, distribution infrastructure, and brands for the next ten years, the market stalled.

In fact, for the first time in over twenty years, per capita consumption and overall growth declined, and as brands competed for the shrinking market, prices slumped. 
And that despite ads like this one which went viral:

That sales decline coincided with the economic downturn. But it also coincided with the emergence of viral videos on social media - primarily the combination of Facebook and YouTube - from activists and consumer groups criticizing the environmental or community impact of bottled water. Here's one from 2010:

With the presence of multiple conflicting voices, and their equal access to airtime, the market is an entirely new type of conversation – one that many companies are not used to having, one that puts them ill at ease, or on the defensive.

So what we get is "a kind of almost, but not-quite, sideways, sidelong" missed opportunity of a "conversation."

Contrast the tone of the Evian ad with the Story of Bottled Water video and you begin to see that the participants are largely talking past each other; or maybe they're just speaking to different sub-groups in the market. 

Because they're sharing the same social media spaces, eventually brands and their critics will have to speak to each other. It is hard to imagine that they will not have to take account of what others in the same shared space are saying.

And the resulting conversation is the real social media opportunity for marketers. Brands that figure out how to be an effective participant in the conversation can flesh out their three-dimensional presence in the new medium; those that don't, fall flat.

As with any conversation, you have to know how and when to join it, what you can and should not say, how to listen, take note what others are saying, and move the conversation forward. Without knowledge of these ground rules, your brand comes across as socially inept.

Consumers, consumer groups, activists of all stripes, and even regulators have claimed a role in the conversation. And that makes social media a scary place for many brands.

Yet can you afford not to take the plunge? The genie is out of the bottle. 

Pull up a chair, join the conversation.

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If you have a couple of hours, check out a video version of the the bottled water case. I'm keen to get your feedback on the case, so please leave comments here.


Alice said...

Well, what is being described is the basic principle of communication, isn't it? There's the one that does the talking and the one that receives the message, each may have different ideas what the message is all about. Thanks for reminding us about this basic principle.

Alice Ngan

Niraj Dawar said...

Hey Alice, great to see you here on the blog!
Yes, you are right, of course, this is common sense. But it is somewhat uncommon for brands that have grown up accustomed to a mass media environment in which they were the only ones with a bullhorn. So a reminder about common sense communications principles does not hurt. - Niraj

Breanne McMurray said...

I find all of the true facts surrounding the bottled water industry truly disturbing. I do agree that we as a society need to boycott the industry. Already we have seen improvements so lets not stop now. Environmental awareness is increasing by the second,and the rise of social media only helps raise this concern, among others in the industry.Think of the cigarette industry a decade ago; we were still seeing advertisements for smoking. Awareness of negative impacts from smoking pushed the industry to create educative regulations. For instance all cigarette packages have information/photos regarding the negative effects of cigarettes. Perhaps a decade from now, bottled water will have labels stating its negative impacts.

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