A new study by Millward Brown has confirmed what many social media marketers have been saying for a long time: consumers prefer brands that act like friends, not brands.

The study by Millward Browns social media research network Firefly found that although most organisations recognise the potential and importance of social media, there is confusion about the rules of engagement and a lack of organisational support and confidence. As a result, many stay away from social media, or jump in without fully understanding the impact on their brand.

The study also highlighted the need for brands to earn trust. Respondents revealed their dislike of brands and companies that talk at them in social media and their desire for brands to have a ‘human face’ and behave more like a friend than a company. Consumers also expressed concern that marketers will turn social media from a community into a marketplace.

Pamela Ingall, Director of Firefly Millward Brown in Australia, said: “Australian and global brands are still coming to grips with social media and many are worried their brand is not cool enough or will attract negative chatter. However, as this research has shown, there are clear rules of engagement for brands in social media. Trust is key and brands need to listen to what consumers have to say and be open and honest about their products and services. As the balance of power shifts to consumers, brands who successfully engage through social media are rewarded with loyal consumers who endorse and defend their favoured brands.”

Firefly Millward Browns recommendations for brands using social media

  1. Don’t recreate your homepage in social media — consumers want to see something new, fresh or different from brands – not a rehash of the same information they can get on the brand’s official website.
  2. Listen first, then talk: create a dialogue — by far one of the biggest issues consumers have – or anticipate – with brands is that they will simply talk at them instead of talking with them. They want a conversation where brands listen to what they have to say.
  3. Build trust by being open and honest — transparency is key for brands in social media and it is the most critical factor in building trust. However, consumers perceive that brands would rather hide behind policies and procedures than admit to their failings or shortcomings.
  4. Give your brand a face — brands often suffer in social media because they don’t have anyone that answers to the consumer, a face for the brand. This prevents many consumers from actively engaging with companies in social media.
  5. Offer something of value — consumers are more likely to respond to brands that offer them something real and tangible, preferably without wanting something in return. While discounts and coupons are in vogue for brands in social media, they can create distrust. Worthwhile and exclusive content or deals or inside information on new products and services are valued by consumers.
  6. Be relevant — consumers want to see content that relates to their life, their interests, their desires and their needs. Interestingly, several respondents commented on the lack of relevance for brands of ‘functional’ products like detergent, fabric softener and household cleaning products within the social media universe. In social media consumers are more critical about content that isn’t deemed relevant and feel that it’s invading their space.
  7. Talk like a friend, not a corporate entity — consumers want brands to communicate in simple, casual language that is conversational. They do not want technical or sales speak.
  8. Give consumers some control — to operate effectively, brands must relinquish some of the control they have held for many years and be comfortable with the fact that they cannot solely dictate the message anymore. Brands that embrace consumer input and promote it will be more effective in managing the conversation.
  9. Let consumers find you/come to you — another stark departure from traditional media campaigns, consumers do not want to feel that brands are ‘shouting’ messages at them. The perception is clearly that brands will use ‘intrusive’ and ‘interruptive’ advertising in social media.
  10. Let consumers talk for you — brands achieve more kudos when consumers take the initiative and advocate them. A recent Toyota campaign, where real people talked about their stories on Facebook and were then selected to feature in a television ad, is a great example where the brand is not trying to overtly sell but is building relationships by encouraging customers to participate in conversations.

This qualitative social media study used a purpose-built private social network to conduct in-depth discussions with hundreds of people ranging from ages 18-50 and conducted in nine countries globally (Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, India, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States). Respondents were segmented into two groups: ‘Moderates’ (lighter users of social media) and ‘Mavens’ (heavier, savvier users of social media).