Earned media, defined as conversations around brands in the social media space, do not happen by accident.
"They are a result of virally designed campaigns," said Neeraj Gulati, executive director for social media and digital integration, IPG Mediabrands, World Markets, Asia.
He is responsible for setting up Rally, the social marketing unit under Mediabrands that has been well received in Asia Pacific.
Established in Malaysia in 2009, Rally provides social marketing strategy, advocacy management, conversation planning, and social commerce. It has now expanded to more than 10 markets from Hong Kong, Singapore to Thailand out of its regional hub in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Rally's clients span across industry sectors from Johnson & Johnson, Dutch Lady, KFC, Pizza Hut, Microsoft, RHB Bank to Malaysia Airlines and more.
Do brands get the value of earned media?
When Rally started its service a few years ago, many brands were still experimenting with social media.
"Today it's part of their annual budget exercise," Gulati noted.
He is cautious not to quote any figures as it differs across categories, but acknowledged that social marketing investment has grown by "leaps and bounds."
Unlike conventional "paid media" agencies, Rally focuses on measuring and leveraging earned media for clients.
Earned media is often referred to media coverage, but with the proliferation of social networks, (Facebook commands a wide reach at 1 billion users worldwide, then there are niche sites like Instagram and Pinterest), the social landscape is evolving rapidly giving consumers more opportunities for their voice to be heard.
Consumers have always had opinions and experiences about brands. What is different now is that social media allows them to communicate and scale their opinions in a fluid and platform-agnostic way, Gulati said.
For example, a consumer can watch your commercial on TV or online video and refer it to their friend on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
"In this scenario where a consumer's recommendation has a more powerful impact, a single measurement currency like GRP (gross rating point) can only give you delivery numbers but not the impact numbers," he explained.
Rally believes that earned media is a result of virally designed campaigns so its focus is to infuse conversations into campaigns to generate, grow, and measure if a brand message is liked and appreciated by consumers.
"Clients today understand the value of earned media and a simple correlation of sales to share of positive conversations (SOPC) can prove that sales in present day world is directly linked to positive recommendations from loyal advocates," Gulati added.
These super fans or brand advocates hold a lot of power to influence their peers and drive sales.
Social commerce: Subway Singapore case study
Rally's social commerce arm has found that in all the cases where they measured the end mile conversion, social recommendation has turned out to be five times more efficient over paid media.
In FMCG categories where sales still take place at a supermarket, social campaigns have led to sales lift by as high as 50 percent.
In July 2012, Rally ran a Facebook campaign for Subway Singapore to increase sales for its Beef Pastrami sandwich. Its social strategy was to convert Facebook likes into Subway sales. Every day the agency gave out clues via Facebook and activated staff on the ground so that its fans could track down the Subway Man and use the clues to get discounts for its limited edition sandwich. Its social commerce efforts paid off as Subway sales increased by double digits.
Rally's approach to negative sentiment
Convincing brands to invest in social marketing is not without its challenges.
Brands are scared of negative conversations and don't want to open another channel for complaints to the consumer.
The agency understands there'll always be some consumers who don't like a brand or had a bad experience and would voice out their dissatisfaction.
Its take on having a social media strategy is to create enough positive conversation around the brand to drown out the negative sentiment as well as simultaneously work on the negative feedback to improve customer experience with the brand.
"After all, like all of us, the brands also improve and grow by the day," Gulati said.
Social marketing trends in Asia
According to Wave6, brand website traffic is dropping in the region to as high as 26 percent as consumers move to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to search for brand information.
Consumers are continuing to move away from siloed brand websites as they find them one-dimensional compared to social media.
"Brands will need to reach out to consumers in the social spaces if they are to connect online," Gulati advised.
Wave6 is a proprietary study from Universal McCann conducted annually across 62 countries worldwide focusing on changing social media attitudes and behaviors.
In another finding, even though data privacy concerns are rising, more than 40 percent of Internet users in Asia are worried of missing out if they don't visit their social networks. Hence, they are fully prepared to share their data in return for the benefits that social platforms bring.
Wave6 also revealed that each market in Asia has its own unique social insights:
Will SOPC become the new social currency?
Whether a brand is present on social space or not, thousands and millions of conversations are taking place, making or breaking the brand reputation online.
As consumers become more and more powerful, each of their opinions counts, Gulati said.
Shouting loud in the market in terms of SOV (share of voice) will not drive market share any more, he argued.
"It's the SOPC that will bring in sales in 2013 and the years to come."
Last Week to Save on SES London Tickets!
SES London takes place February 10-13, 2014. Learn to engage customers and increase ROI by distributing your online marketing efforts across paid, owned & earned media. Join the leaders of today's digital marketing & advertising industry. Find out more ››
*Saver Rates expire this Friday, Dec 13.
Adaline Lau, ClickZ Asia editor, oversees day-to-day editorial operations covering digital marketing from search to social media, mobile to analytics in the region. Before ClickZ, she was senior reporter at Marketing Magazine and has worked as a journalist for The Singapore Marketer and Asia Pacific Broadcasting. Connect with her @adalinelau or Google+.