This is a conversation I had recently on the future of brands in social media with fellow Guru Blogger Jenni Beattie.

Stephen Byrne: I want to start with some work Forrester did in April last year when they outlined the five phases of the social web.

They are:

  1. Era of Social Relationships: People connect to others and share
  2. Era of Social Functionality: Social networks become like operating system
  3. Era of Social Colonisation: Every experience can now be social
  4. Era of Social Context: Personalised and accurate content, and
  5. Era of Social Commerce: Communities define future products and service.

The Forrester study found that the technologies will trigger changes in consumer adoption, and brands will need to follow, resulting in these five distinct phases.

I don’t think technologies are going to be the only triggers for new consumer adoption. My view is that the marketing of brands as we know it in a state of flux. What we are seeing, to use a French phrase, is an eventment, where for example, social media and technology are combining to mitigate against many of the old marketing paradigms. You only have to look at what’s happening on the agency level.  

Jenni Beattie: I believe the marketing of brands as we know it has fundamentally changed. Today consumers expect to have a say, be able to feedback and make a mark on a brand. This can be as simple as using review features on websites to user generated content such as naming a brand.

After spending time in digital market research, you can see how the social web is impacting that discipline. In the past it was very much a parent-child relationship with the researcher asking a very set question and the respondent answering. Today, more interactive forms of research such as online community research are taking place with a more ‘organic’ flow to the questioning i.e. the participants driving and forming part of the research. Good examples of innovative research can be seen from international companies such as Fresh Networks and PeanutLabs.

SB: In the final phase Forrester projects consumers will rely on their peers as they make online decisions, whether or not brands choose to participate. Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems; eventually this will result in empowered communities defining the next generation of products.

I’m not sure if I accept this phase. It’s like the worst effects of crowdsourcing and consensus politics. I don’t think we’re going to get an entirely technology driven brands, as Forrester’s analysis implies, but there is certainly some dramatic changes occurring with regards to consumer empowerment and in terms of brand preferences.

JB: There will be an increase in consumers defining products and services. Online branded communities created by Dell, Starbucks and P&G are already helping give customer feedback and in turn helping to define the future products and services.

A good international example of innovation and consumers defining brands was when The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) of the USA awarded Kettle Foods one of the two 2008 Awards for Innovation and Creativity. Kettle Foods won the award for its People’s Choice campaign. The campaign combined consumer interaction, PR and R&D into one program. According to the press reports the company has had than 11,000 new business leads, more than 7,000 new flavour suggestions, and 75,000 unique website visits all for a low cost investment.

As far as power shifting away from CRM systems I don’t believe that to be the case. CRM will reinvent itself, Gartner refers to this as social CRM. Gartner analysts say There’s operational CRM, analytical CRM, and now there’s collaborative or social CRM”. Today CRM budgets are looking towards more social applications such as Twitter that are at the coal-face of customer service.

SB: Right now there seems to be a lot of confusion between social media and the definition of community. The idea of community is right now as fairly elusive one and is being bandied about like it’s some sacrosanct term. Community built around consumption is, for me fairly transitory. It reminds of an unruly mob during the time of the Paris Commune. We’re  not going to get a whole lot of sense out of this right now.

Then there’s these dire warnings coming from people like Forrester, that brands will be excluded from consumer choice because somehow they are now being defined by communities and no longer by the brand owners themselves. I think this is both disingenuous and untrue. Forcing brands out of their hands via social media created communities is only part of the story. While even as early as 2005 Tomi Ahonen and Alan Moore warned marketers, in their prescient work Communities Dominate Brands, that if they didn’t cut loose the shackles of the traditional advertising agency and TV network model they would lose their brands. I’m seeing many of the same warnings again this year, particularly in the wake of the great financial crisis. But what real, if any, changes have we seen to this paradigm? No brands have fallen by the wayside because they didn’t have a social media strategy or because they continued advertising in traditional media.

JB: Brands may not fall by the wayside as such, but brands will become stronger because of their consumer engagement strategies. For example, the well known Dell Hell scenario certainly impacted on that organisation negatively, but by engaging with the community they came back stronger and more relevant to their client base. If they hadn’t done that who knows where that organisation would have been.

Some brands come to social media like Dell in a ‘reactive’ fashion knowing they now need to engage with consumers due to a negative event/issue. Other brands initiate the online engagement strategy ‘proactively’, understanding it will add value to their knowledge base, understanding the client better, product development and customer service.

SB: Ahonen and Moore predicted the consumer and their connected communities, would select the products and brands that are engaged in the most relevant dialogue with them. Somehow this would become the centre of a new modern and sustainable marketing model. While I think there are some massive shifts occurring,  I don’t think we’re quite there yet with this because I’m not sure anyone understands these kinds of ROIs yet.

JB: First of all it is important not just to focus on ROI but measurable goals and each company will have varying goals. Social media marketing is typically a long-term investment so to set short-term ROI goals is going to be difficult. Setting ROI for a specific short-term campaign is more logical i.e. we spent X dollars taking this campaign to the market place and X dollars in sales. There are many intangible benefits from social media marketing such as increased loyalty from customers, insights and R&D innovations and better customer service many of these are hard to equate with a dollar value.

There is a balance when setting ROI expectations. Many social media audits have an advertising value equivalent (AVE) metric assigned. This stems from the AVE metric that the public relations industry used but discredited about a decade ago saying it was simplistic and backward looking rather than useful for future strategic planning. Unfortunately, just as in the traditional PR world many c-level execs still want the $ figure and so in the social media marketing world the metric is still used but with some hesitation.

SB: There’s already a view that Web 2.0 and pervasiveness of new community archetypes make demographics dead, but I don’t see this is as too different to these axiomatic definitions of community.

JB: If companies were using demographics as the only avenue for understanding their customer then, yes demographics are dead. Companies need to have a relationship with the customer rather than simply put them in isolated boxes. Let’s face it boomers today don’t act like middle-aged people years ago – times have changed so the context for those demographics has to change as well.

As far as using demographics to reach consumers via social media marketing, that is still relevant but rather than just understanding income levels and postcodes we need to understand how they relate online and what sites they are using. We need to understand their technographic profile. For example, women 55-plus and men 55-plus operate differently online understanding this will mean you can engage with them more effectively.

Gartner published research on what they call Generation V (virtual) indicating that the generation isn’t defined by specific demographics, but by the way they use technology i.e. a behavioural categorisation. Elements of this categorisation include accomplishments, how they build and share knowledge and their preference for different media channels.

Let’s not throw out the ‘baby with the bathwater’ demographics are not dead but demographic elements need to be relevant to social media marketing.

SB: One of the things I am seeing is the built around the question of measuring influence in social networks and communities. I’m not sure if brands are really measuring this and how much use, if any, they are making of influence metrics.

JB: There are a myriad of ways to measure influence in social networks and the impact of social media marketing. Normally there is a mix of qualitative and quantitative measurements.

To set your measurements you need to set your marketing objectives and relate the metrics to those. For example, if you want to raise awareness of a new product or service attention metrics such as the amount of views of your content are important if you are after sales metrics than you need to look at actionable clicks rather than just views.

I like to break the metrics down into Visibility Metrics (i.e. getting seen) and engagement metrics (what people do once they see your content site). So, for example, engagement metrics would include items such as links shared, comments on blogs etc.

SB: I don’t think we’re really in a position to say that brands and companies without a social media strategy are going to find that customers will go elsewhere.

JB: Yes, It may not be quite as apocalyptic as that, but recent research looking at brand relationships has shown that on average they are 15% stronger for digital consumers. Even products such as motor fuel and hair care can be impacted favourably by engaging with the consumers online.

Some brands will have more synergy with social media marketing than others. A good example is the non-profit area, where there is already a lot of passion and energy around their company or cause. For example, the United Nations Refugee Agency recently launched their Causes page on Facebook. They reached 50,000 members in just under seven days, raised just over $50,000 and boosted their Facebook fan page to 20,000 fans.

Having said that even brands that you would think would have less ‘talkability’ in social media such as tax (think H&R Block) have done well using social media strategies.

Let’s not forget that while some may think that social media marketing is radical and very new in reality Doc Searls and David Weinberger (the founders of the Cluetrain Manifesto) were spouting social media marketing many years ago.

SB: One of the problems is how social commerce is really going to work. Given the growing failure of traditional advertising in almost all media forms, the real question now is how are brands going to be sold in the future. 

Stephen Byrne is director of strategy at DIFFUSION, a Sydney-based strategy agency.

Jenni Beattie is a director at Digital Democracy, a Sydney-based digital communications consultancy.