Anyone trying to build an online brand presence must ask themselves: what exactly is it that people do on social networks? Why are they there?
The answers offered to the question by social media experts are often unsatisfactory. ‘Social media is like a bar conversation.’ Not quite: in a bar, you can order a drink. And in bars, people drink with friends, not the strangers they ‘drink’ with on Twitter and LinkedIn. So obviously, they’re doing something else.
A hint of the answer might be in an article in the Journal of Marketing (vol. 74), that takes a look at how seeding campaigns are received in blogging communities. What the researchers found was that a few things are very important when considering a seeding marketing campaign – and we can assume that two of them are important even in absence of any marketing campaign:
Basically what happens when people go online is this: they tell a continuing story about themselves. The story, which expresses a set of values, is used to gain access to the community and status amongst their peers.
I’ve always wondered why the BP oilspill created such an outrage on Twitter and Facebook. Yes, certainly it was a major ecological disaster. And yes, BP made it worse by making communication mistakes. But underneath that, there seemed to be another dynamic at work. There are other ecological disasters that fail to attract this much Twitter hate (the Fukushima meltdown - nothing to sneeze at in terms of ecological disastrousness - was widely discussed, but with a lot less hate directed against Tepco).
The research in the Journal of Marketing might explain part of the dynamic: BP happened to provide a great way for people to express shared values like ecology and sustainability. Or take the (somewhat lesser) outrage over the geolocation data on Apple devices. It’s certainly not nice of Apple to collect this data without our knowing it, but other corporations store a lot of information on us. Again, the geolocation drama provided a great way to come together and say: we value privacy.
When I researched our webinar on Reputation Management, I noticed that aside from these ‘value’ tweets, there is another big category of angry tweet or online remark: consumers demanding better service.
So if we boil it all down to the essentials, it seems people go online to gain a certain status in a community of their choice. When needed, this status can be leveraged to get something in return (deals, coupons, service, recognition).
What I take away from this study is, first: that you should be aware that online presence and online community building are primarily about values. If you want to fit in, your brand story will have to stress your values, and you should take care not to offend the community or communities that you take part in.
Second, I think it’s clear that it’s not enough to react to what people say online. There isn’t any ‘online community’. Instead, there are thousands of microcommunities, with their own communal norms. To really have an impact with your social media presence, it’s necessary to look at the character narrative and the communal norm that people are expressing when they mention your brand. You have to know who you’re talking to, who they are talking to (their online community), and what they want from their online presence. Then you can decide how your brand or company can help them with this.
Take McDonalds. There’s a big difference between a teenager slamming McDonalds because his fries weren’t hot enough, and a scholar slamming McDonalds for serving junk food to children.
See this tweet:
Would this person become a 'brand ambassador' for McDonalds if the marketing department contacted her? Not likely, judging from her profile:
While you can probably please the angry teenager with a coupon for a free Big Mac menu, the obesity writer won't be exactly charmed with such an approach - indeed, it could easily backfire.
So, as in all communication, some kind of segmentation will be in order, which will have to be along the lines of different stakeholders:
Careful: this doesn’t mean that you should have different online presences to address all these segments. On the contrary, I think. It just means that, in the communications back office, there need to be different scenarios and maybe even different people in charge of handling these communications.