helping brands make perfect sense of social media, from IAB UK’s social media council

Amy Kean, senior PR and marketing manager, IAB.

The results of an IAB and Opinion Matters survey amongst brands appeared in Marketing Mag today under the headline ‘Major Brands Sceptical of Social Media’. The article presents a few stats from the study, which investigated the views of 80 senior-level marketers.  These included the fact that almost a quarter (22%) of brands have made social media a core part of their communications strategy, whilst our research found that only 7% of respondents haven’t yet embraced social media in any way.

Social media is wonderful.  It’s innovative, it’s incredibly exciting and rewarding, but it’s ok for some people to not be totally bought on it… yet.  Many are still at the testing stage. 20% of our survey feed social media into most campaigns in some way, whilst 23.5% use social media in ad hoc projects and 27% have tested it with a view to using again.

This is mixed usage indeed, but the same applies to any ‘newish’ form of communication. I remember when I first started work at the IAB (almost 6 years ago… wow) we had a massive job to do persuading marketers that online was a medium worthy of investment.  Some just didn’t understand it, a few didn’t see the value, others thought it lacked the creativity that other media had nurtured for many years.  What was required was a pretty relentless programme of research, events, inspirational presentations and whitepapers alongside cross-industry collaboration to help digital shoot up the agenda.

And so the same applies with social media. But despite the fact that some brands are still dipping their toes in the water, the majority see its significance – 88% of our respondents rated social media as important to their business.  It’s an area of digital that is not without its challenges, and it’s our responsibility (and something which the SMC has at the top of its priority list) to further educate the market and help them understand where social media fits as part of an integrated campaign.

‘Social media’ can be a broad and problematic term (the way it’s now discussed in the US may suggest that at some point the phrase may not be used anymore…) As such we have to be careful not to position ourselves as an entirely new ‘medium’, because if we do, then marketers will continue to see it as an add-on, isolated from the rest of their marketing activity.

Social media budgets steadily increasing
It’s also important for the industry to be realistic about what social media can achieve to reassure brands that this is where they should be spending their money.  And budgets are most definitely increasing.  According to respondents, spend dedicated to the discipline will increase this year, with a third of advertisers planning to allocate between 6 and 20% of their digital marketing budgets on social media in 2010, compared with just 14% in 2009.

But where does social media fit?
The results confirm that there is still a level of uncertainty surrounding where social media should fit within the business, suggesting that a range of skillsets are required internally for advertisers to make best use of the discipline.  Whilst three quarters (73%) of respondents stated that social media belonged within the marketing department, it was also found to be the responsibility of PR (33%), research (12%) customer services (16%) and IT teams (7%).

There’s a number of agencies out there who are already doing great work in helping their clients establish ‘social media teams’ – helping them fully incorporate social media within their communications plans, spanning a number of departments, Nixon McInnes for examples, with clients such as WWF.

This is something the IAB is totally behind, recognising that social media requires very unique skillsets, and can bring benefits to the whole company – excellent online customer service via Twitter for example can quickly become a form of promotion, social media research can inform your marketing strategy, and so on.

We chatted to Simon Rutherford, who until recently was Head of Digital at Toyota, and is in the process of establishing a Social Media agency, about where social media should fit, and he believed that:

“Social media has the potential to confuse organisations, because it requires a mix of skills which have traditionally been exclusively contained within departments. For example, whilst marketing might manage research, and the development of content, PR might understand how to handle misinformation about their company and products. And CR are a critical part too. It’s an easy mistake to produce outbound communications without connecting them to a burden of inbound complaints or comments, but that wont help you prepare properly for the complexity of social media.’

Benefits and challenges in equal measure
We also asked our respondents why they used social media and what they thought the challenges for the industry are, and this is probably the area that we (the council, the IAB) need to focus on in order to contribute to the discipline’s longevity.  Amongst the reasons why marketers have embraced social media, driving awareness and consideration was the most common choice, with around 77% using it for this purpose, with 75% using it to drive engagement and advocacy.  Whilst many are using social media for research purposes (60%) almost half (47%) have been using it to drive product sales.

Conversely, three quarters (74%) of respondents believed that proving ROI was the biggest challenge for the social media industry, whilst 64% saw measurement as the most significant hurdle, and over half (57%) stating that more education of how best to use it is required.

And what next?
So are brands sceptical of social media? Of course! Which is why we all need to move away from the ‘what is’ discussions, to the ‘how to’.  In the past 12 months there’s been a swarm of evangelical events all waxing lyrical about how social media will change the world forever, how it has transformed consumer’s lives and that brands weren’t even ‘real brands’ until online communities and conversation came along.

But is this what the marketing community needs? Or do they need lots more case studies, further assistance in working out how they should divvy up responsibility within their organisations, additional effectiveness research and a greater emphasis on practical guidance.  Many people say that brands ‘just don’t get it’ – I don’t think this is true.  Social media is easy enough to ‘get’. Working out how it builds a business and a brand is a tougher task, but totally doable.

The survey reveals some extremely promising results, which have given social media the credit it deserves and should be embraced by practitioners.  But our role now is to address what should be done to reinforce the integrity of social media and continue to boost its development.

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