Social media for marketers – looking beyond the hype

by Sabarinath Nair    Jan 31, 2011

Leveraging the power of “Social Media” is a jargon one encounters very often in marketing parlance. So much that if you browse through job listings for marketing roles, you would find a lot of listings for “Marketing Manager – Social Media”. If companies are investing so much money and effort into this, there must be something special about social media, right? Or is it merely a déjà-vu of the decade leading up to the year 2000, when the dot com bubble had the place of today’s social media? What do social media really mean to you as a marketing professional?

To examine the actual use of social media, I will limit myself to Twitter, Facebook and blogs. How have these tools impacted marketing? The very fact that this article in its web edition (compared to a hypothetical print edition) would be much better to access, by means of readily clickable links indicates the power of web. Blogs extend this benefit by providing means to get first-hand feedback on company announcements, through user comments. Twitter and facebook make sense for shorter and more interactive communication. Many brands are now on twitter (http://2020social.wetpaint.com/page/Indian+brands+on+Twitter) as well as facebook (http://2020social.wetpaint.com/page/Indian+brands+on+Facebook).. From a consumer point of view, the advantage social media presence (assuming someone serious is manning these accounts) provides is that it gives a fairly democratic access to these brands, and also provides an extended customer support (for example, tweeting to @Airtel_Presence might give better results than dialling 121). For the brands, the key lies in managing these accounts in such a way that they are used more for brand building than for resolving customer complaints.

These advantages also come with risks. “Viral” is a buzzword used and abused in most marketing classes, and brands need to remember that most often negative publicity is much more viral than positive. For the general public, Twitter is most often a place for ranting – a search on twitter with any brand name will most certainly return negative comments (also read - http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_poor-customer-service-don-t-call-just-tweet_1420265). What a brand can do in such a scenario is to be seen as responsive & prompt on social media – to make known that all customer concerns are being listened to and addressed. A case in point is how leading Indian brand Cafe Coffee Day handled a viral negative publicity on twitter (a good case study on this is available at http://www.slideshare.net/amnigos/how-cafe-coffee-day-handled-their-online-crisis). The hashtag #CCDSucks was trending locally on twitter for some time and then ironically Cafe Coffee Day’s twitter account @CafeCoffeeDay had to respond with the same hashtag which spoke negatively about their brand. By responding promptly, the brand was able to do some damage control, though it is still debatable whether the way it was handled was the best possible. More case studies can be accessed at http://www.indiasocial.in/case-studies/

It is not just companies who are able to benefit from the power of social media. Earlier it was tough to get recognition as a writer and get published. In the post Chetan Bhagat, post Social Media era, things are much easier. A new breed of celebrities has come up on twitter and blogosphere, with strong fan followings. Sidin Vadukut, an editor at Mint who blogs at whatay.com and tweets from @sidin, recently launched a bestselling novel by name Dork, riding on his popularity as a humorist in these social media circles. Shashi Tharoor became the first Indian politician to connect with the tech savvy electorate through twitter (@ShashiTharoor) and continues to be one of the most influential persons on twitter (that his tweets contributed majorly to his being sacked as Minister of State is the flip side of social media)

Given all this, it is clear that Social Media management is very critical to branding of B2C companies. How does it impact B2B companies? What about start-ups? In my opinion, the benefits are not much more than better Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Major search engines give much more weightage to content on blogs and social media than content on proper company websites. So it helps a lot in terms of search engine visibility to have a company blog in addition to keeping the company website up to date. For example, Vortex Engineering, the makers of the award winning Rural ATM Gramateller faces the same limitations in search engine results that a start-up would face. By effective use of the company blog and twitter, it is able to be the first result returned when someone googles with “SBI 20000th ATM”. Moreover, a tweet addressed to the twitter account of Mint (@livemint) ensured that the leading business newspaper covered the company’s winning of WEF Technology Pioneer award without any PR efforts (not even a press release). On the other hand, its customers are banks, and most bankers are not very internet savvy, and hence it does not make sense for usage of social media for customer interaction.

To conclude, brands have to tread carefully around the hype of social media. If it is not handled properly, it can bring far more negative results than any other medium. For B2B brands, the benefits are limited as the number of its customers would be limited compared to a B2C or a retail company. The decision on whether to invest in social media has to be taken based on whether the customers of the brand are active on the same media, and whether it is possible to create meaningful conversations with customers/consumers on these social media. As for the hype, use it where it matters most – scoring brownie points in an increasingly jargonized and ‘power pointed’ corporate jungle, and not for any real returns.

Author Bio – Sabarinath C Nair is Assistant Manager – Marketing at Vortex Engineering Pvt Ltd and handles marketing, branding and PR for the start-up. He is an alumnus of Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, class of 2008. His interests include travelling, reading and technology marketing. He tweets at @sabarinathc and manages the official twitter account of Vortex @VortexATM