Social Media Marketing: Are You a Leader or Follower?

If last year was remarkable for one single event, arguably the moment that Facebook, the world’s largest social network, reached half a billion members is a strong candidate for that moment.

The landmark achievement signified a great many things, most notably the arrival of social networks – and Facebook in particular – as a platform for mainstream communications worldwide and with it a paradigm shift for communicators across all industries.

For the modern marketer, the rise of the Internet and social networks has shifted the emphasis and focus of their campaigns and relationship with their audience. The Internet and online media moved eyeballs away from daily newspapers to online news sites, RSS feeds, pay-walled online media, blogs, and other new media outlets, which are consumed quickly, easily, and by an individual’s choice and interests – the so-called personalisation of information – unlike print media.

From early 2010, social networks began generating greater traffic than Google, the unofficial window to the Web, across a number of international markets indicating that Web browsing habits are changing and, consequently, the model for online news consumption has matured with social networks playing a greater influencer.

The growing influence of social, referring back to Facebook’s rise for further validation, has impacted the marketing process hugely as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks – including many of those local to China, Korea, Japan, and other Asian markets – now drive comparative, if not greater, traffic to sites as Google. Social has now become a core part of any marketing or communications campaign.

The example of Old Spice and its recent campaign which made extensive use of YouTube videos generated a huge international response, helping to bring the brand back into the public attention. By tapping into online social networks with genuinely compelling content, Old Spice demonstrated that the role played by advertising in the communications chain has diminished.

So, how is it that social can overshadow advertising, renowned as a staple part of the marketing communications mix?

With more than half a billion people signed up to Facebook, and countless other hundreds of millions members of a range of other social networks across the world, over the last few years, behaviours, audiences, and influencers have emerged.

Marketers that are able to tap into influencers, develop campaigns that appeal to social users’ behaviours, and understand how to reach audiences have many of the benefits of advertising at their power through an emerging medium which is inherently viral, a crucial and intensely valuable factor that can bring greater exposure and closeness with an audience.

For example, as Old Spice did, selecting key online, social influencers for a campaign can help spread a message to a range of audiences and demographics if properly engaged.

With each social network user armed with their own power of influence, a campaign that taps into high-level influencers as Old Spice did sends word of the campaign and messages across the social landscape tapping into influencers and audiences at many levels.

Advertising, on the other hand, provides a message but is not packaged so as to leverage and enjoy the viral effect of social networks. Readers of an advert may choose to talk about the contents with their friends or colleagues, but they are unlikely to repackage it and circulate it amongst their contacts as users of social networks can.

Another area of significance for online influencers’ role is marketing, particularly in Asia, as recent Nielsen research revealed. Online word of mouth was found to be the second most influential factor on new purchases, ahead of advertising and company communications that lack the independence of a social interaction.

With every customer and transaction a walking, talking advert for a brand, the only issue is to ensure your campaign and content are compelling enough to be repeated. Which effectively leaves advertising for the uninspiring, unremarkable brands that are telling a story that no one wants to hear.

That said, there is a coming together of social and advertising through social adverts such as those using Facebook, Twitter promotion, or other types of new advertising promotion through social networks. These ads are typically aimed at drawing attention to social media campaigns and activities rather than mimicking the style of traditional ads.

Social ads are often used in conjunction with campaigns as they help generate additional attention and momentum for campaigns and come considerably cheaper than traditional advertising.

In general, however, the rise of social has brought with it a new landscape of influence in which traditional advertising plays an increasingly diminishing role. So the question is, are you aggressively pursuing this new media – being the first to learn the new rules, or are you sitting back waiting till others have established a lead so you can learn from them?

Hint: It’s no fun, and certainly not as lucrative (neither for a brand nor for your career) to be a follower.

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