If you’ve been following our weekly reviews of Audi’s mini-series for the A1, ‘The Next Big Thing’, or our previous review of Volkswagen of America’s PunchDub campaign then you’ll be aware that some brands are still finding the move into digital marketing something of a challenge.

Social media is changing the marketing landscape. It’s changing politics, news and how we all consume entertainment for that matter as well. At the heart of this shift in thinking is the evolution from “push” or broadcast marketing to influence marketing – where a campaign is developed to interface with existing networks and take advantage of the social web.

While finding fault with how some brands have approached the social web is easy it’s not terribly useful, so I thought it would be more helpful to lift the lid on some of the more successful social media campaigns and why they worked.

How did we get here?

Conventional marketing has tended to be ‘brand centric’. The brand is placed on a pedestal, displayed in the best light and then promoted as loudly as possible to its target customers. Shock and awe, baby!

Often the brand message precedes the product reality, but that’s what brand marketing was for – blaze a trail and clear the way for those quarterback rainmakers. And it works too… or at least it ‘used’ to.

That was until the internet came along and people started using their social networks to validate what brands were saying, and when they disagreed they would broadcast their discontent – loudly. We soon learned that brand values were defined by customer’s own experiences and not by the rhetoric of PR teams.

Brands naturally began to fear these social networks and the contradictions they presented to the official tone. Rather than embrace this change, marketers sought to control their image further in the only way they knew how – louder and prouder media campaigns. ‘Push’ marketing rules – Yeah!

But in this battle of wills, there will only ever be one winner, and whilst brands continue to ignore the wishes of their customers, the gap becomes in some respects even wider.

Research conducted by Comscore in early 2009 showed that 84% of internet users chose to never click on a display advert, although it’s also been shown that 50-60% of users cite a display ad influencing their decision to click on a search result at a future time. This picture differs when we look at the Automotive sector, perhaps because of the more dynamic nature of the ads – In July 2009 we surveyed 2,500 users on Drivers Republic and found that 66% would never click on an ad – although this depended very much on the type of ad technique used (e.g. pop-up, text-link, video ad..).

When we asked users on drivers-republic.com why they choose to pay attention to an ad, the main reasons they gave were; relevance (50%), usefulness (36%), curiosity (32%), special offers (27%), entertainment (25%), and when informative (22%). Now these findings may sound like nectar to the web analytics and metrics companies (I should know, I used to run one), but these approaches are expensive and will become ever more so with the onset of privacy regulation.

Given the propensity for users using ad-blocking tools online, skipping ads on TV with TiVO, Sky+ and VOD services and the push-back by individuals (and Governments) to the privacy intrusion by large social networks, what’s the solution to improving user engagement and their subsequent response?

1. Ruthlessly eliminate operational silos

The future success of digital marketing will depend heavily on the integration of activities across a multi-channel landscape. Social media is more than just an online phenomenon – a successful campaign is likely to integrate web properties (microsites, social networking hubs) with more conventional offline elements (events, dealer promotions and test drives). Yet as customers increasingly expect to be treated the same through all channels, with continuity and knowledge of them as individuals, the teams involved in delivering these campaigns could not be further apart.

Multi-channel marketing means listening and responding in the ways your customer chooses to interact, but this places considerably more emphasis on the organisation and its agencies acting as one.

Social media has already become siloed with so-called social media consultants claiming the higher-ground, but perhaps it should be under the jurisdiction of PR teams, or maybe it plays more to the planning and delivery capabilities of the ad agencies? In reality it doesn’t belong in any single camp, the social web is merely a reflection of the change in the way people share, validate and make decisions in this digital age and therefore should extend across all departments and teams.

Most of the social media campaigns we see are inbalanced, depending on which stakeholder is pulling the strings. Sometimes it’s the creative which dominates the play – recently ComScore ARS published a report that stated “..the quality of the creative is four times more important than the characteristics of the media plan in generating sales.” In it’s research it found that 52% of any increase in market share could be attributed to the “quality” of the creative work concerned. But this is highly misleading – common sense would tell you that a great creative is useless without an effective media plan – they just can’t be considered seperately.

But more worringly from a social media perspective the effectiveness of a campaign depends on successfully connecting with an audience, this can often lead to the conclusion that a simpler, less glossy creative will be more easily absorbed, understood and thereby shared. Social media sharing is driven by what makes the individual look (and feel) good, not what’s best for the brand and campaigns which under spend on the interactive elements in favour of creative glory, do so at their peril.

2. Create heroes from your customers

People are naturally selfish, that should come as no surprise and their response to marketing usually reflects this. Advertisers already know that the response to a display campaign is directly linked to how clearly it benefits the viewer (e.g. “10% discount during the month of March”, or “buy now and we’ll throw in 12 months free insurance” ).

Whilst such direct response campaigns are relatively simple to plan, the same cannot be said of the multi-channel campaigns that characterise social media which encompass building awareness, aspiration, engagement and action.

The secret? Focus on the individual and build personal relationships with them directly. You need to build social campaigns in a way that actually ‘benefit’ the individual – making them look good, feel good or earn respect within their peer group. But first you need to understand their view of the world and what’s likely to intrigue them and lead them to take action.

A social media campaign turns the conventional rules of advertising and PR on its head – the brand becomes an enabler rather than centre of attention. This also implies a different mindset for engagement, involvement and listening.

Some early examples within the automotive sector include the recent Webby Award winning Porsche Panamera launch site which sought to build a Family Tree of Porsche owners to showcase its customers as the true legends behind the brand.

Another example worthy of note comes from BMW, with their JOY campaign. “JOY. From this word a company has been built that is totally independent and committed to just one thing – the driver. We don’t just build cars, we create emotions. We are guarantors of enthusiasm, fascination and goose bumps. We compose new forms of Joy for which there are no words to describe. We are sheer driving pleasure.”

3. Relationships are built between people who share something in common

What techniques do you use to socialise at a party? You know, the type of gathering where nobody knows you but perhaps some might have heard about you from their friends.

Do you stride in wearing your finest designer clothes, flash that Colgate smile and tell everyone how wonderful you are? Then for the pièce de résistance let them know that they can get close to you by visiting a special place (you’ve built) where they can admire you from?

Sound absurd? Well, why do so many brands behave in precisely this way when trying to engage using social media? If someone walked up to my circle of friends and behaved that way, they’d probably end up getting punched, so it’s hardly surprising that brands are still met with resistance (or ambivalence) when breaking into social circles.

The simple fact is that if you want your brand to be included in the social conversation then first you’ve got to be welcomed, and that will only occur when you participate with your customers on the same level.

4. Share the access but then own the destination

I cringe whenever I hear of yet another brand proudly proclaiming ‘their’ new Facebook page. Having spent a career reinforcing the importance of owning your own customer data, it’s disappointing to see so many brands still using Twitter, Facebook or YouTube as a destination rather than the route to a point of conversion.

The value of these major social channels lies in the breadth and connectivity of them as ‘networks’ but unless this network then channels positive intent to the right destination they’re of little practical value beyond that of a communication tool.

At least some of the latest platforms such as Foursquare intrinsically merge online with offline conversion, as shown by recent collaborations with Starbucks and Domino’s.

Sometimes social networks can become a bit of a PR scrum, with rivals endlessly bragging about their number of followers (or pleading for more followers to reach some arbitrary milestone), but the real value of a social audience is in their willingness to ‘do something’ of value for the brand.

5. Create a story rather than merely an impact

With the increasing pressure to demonstrate a short-term ROI from digital spend it’s not surprising that some social campaigns are focused on achieving an impact within the timeline of a current engagement. But the route from prospect to customer, or cynic to advocate can sometimes be a long one and far from linear.

Social media campaigns are more effective when they follow a customer’s voyage of discovery and influence it at appropriate touch points. Every brand has a story to tell and customers engage more strongly with stories about people, rather than those perfectly polished messages often used to introduce a product. This is perfectly illustrated in the Porsche Panamera case above and the BMW Unscripted series of films. Interweaving these customer stories with your own is a great way of camouflaging the corporate scent of a campaign.

Another good example of this was last year’s GTI Project which involved an online driving game, rivalries between driving leagues and many worthwhile prizes that added value to participants of the competition. And those all important customer stories were popping up unsolicited all over the social web.

If we judged a social campaign by how many words were written about it by those taking part, then this was probably one of the most successful campaigns of 2009. It was also ‘fun’ for all involved which the ‘Golf GTI’ brand enabled. Top marks.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Many so-called social campaigns still invest too much of their budget on the creative elements (i.e. the sexy bits), rather than the relationships that will provide enduring value long after the campaign has ended.

VW's campaign, 'The People's Reviewer', searched for a real consumer who could give honest reviews and thoughts on Volkswagen's small compact 4x4 the Tiguan. 3 finalists were given the opportunity to test drive and review the Tiguan on a professionally shoot, with the eventual winner driving away in a brand spankin' new Tiguan.

We already know from behavioural studies that relationships are formed through common beliefs, a shared identity or purpose and yet when a brand tries to market the dynamic qualities of its new model (such as with Audi’s A1) it’s more likely to demonstrate this through an adrenaline fuelled promotion rather than directly ‘involving’ the people who will ultimately judge and broadcast the truth.

Are traditional advertising and PR agencies not long for this world? Many of them would argue that they’re in the best position to optimise their client’s brands in this digital world, however I know from my own experience that you can only be as innovative as your clients allow and most large corporate brands are at their most risk averse when approaching the unfamiliar waters of social and digital marketing.

Hopefully this post can stimulate some new ideas and encourage those who are on the cusp of taking a few risks to step outside their comfort zone.

Written By

Steve Davies

Steve is an investor, private equity advisor and former Partner at KPMG, PwC and Bain.   Most importantly he's a life-long car enthusiast, mountain biker and active sports enthusiast. He designs and builds technology platforms and is the architect behind Transmission.

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