Social media platforms were created with the noble intention of connecting people, but in recent times they have increasingly coming under the microscope for the divisions they create. This visible impact showcases the intrinsic strength of social media — the credibility of its messaging and the velocity with which it spreads. Using these effectively is social media marketing (SMM). The power of this effectiveness is showcased in many socio-political events such as the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt and Donald Trump’s presidential election.
It is strange that the visible success of SMM is in the political arena and not in the hurly-burly of the marketplace. Propagandists are able to relate to their constituents instinctively and craft messages that resonate with them. With social media, demagogues have been able to bring authenticity and a target to their messaging, which has created an impact that has not been eye-popping. In doing so, they have shown that social media makes content more credible and generates reaction unlike other mass media tools we are accustomed to. Marketers can learn from this and emulate the success.
What is social media marketing?
As always, it starts with how we define SMM. Definitions abound and most of them are phrased something like:
“Social media marketing is the use of social media platforms and websites to promote a product or service. Although the terms e-marketing and digital marketing are still dominant in academia, social media marketing is becoming more popular for both practitioners and researchers.”
“Social media marketing refers to the process of gaining traffic or attention through social media sites.”
“Social media marketing, or SMM, is a form of internet marketing that involves creating and sharing content on social media networks in order to achieve your marketing and branding goals. Social media marketing includes activities like posting text and image updates, videos, and and other content that drives audience engagement, as well as paid social media advertising.”
Notice the banality of these definitions. Were the words ‘social media’ to be replaced, these definitions would pretty apply to any form of marketing communication. None of them consider the innate strengths of social media, the impact it has on consumers and the results it delivers to the practitioners. Were one to redefine SMM in these terms, then the definition would read something like this:
“SMM is the practice of using social media platforms to harness personalised consumer experiences to lend credibility to brand claims and promises and amplify them to the personal networks of such consumers to influence brand preferences and choices.”
How is this different from any other form of marketing communication? Nearly all marketing communication is put out by the marketer. Social media, on the other hand, shifts the origin of communications to the consumer. This shift lends the message authenticity that marketer-induced communication, even if it is a customer testimonial, cannot. Second, even if mass media reaches a large audiences, very often the messages are passed over. Social media content, on the other hand, is perceived to originate from a non-vested source, so it is seen, consumed and more effectively amplified, even though it reaches a relatively smaller audience.
What is the big deal?
The part of advertising that is usually talked about is its heady blend of creativity, glamour and economic purpose. What is less widely talked about is the trust that is placed in advertising.
A 2015 survey by Nielsen across South-East Asia showed that more people placed their faith in ‘word-of-mouth recommendations’ (88 per cent) than in ads in television (74 per cent), newspapers (69 per cent) or online banner ads (47 per cent). Generating positive ‘word-of-mouth’ (WoM) publicity is, thus, a highly effective component of brand communications.
Generating WoM is not too difficult since good products are usually received warmly. However, till social media made its appearance, propagating WoM was usually patchy and required the co-operation of a sceptical media fraternity. Social media has changed that by providing a platform for consumers to tell their stories directly and enabling networks to rapidly amplify the story, much like chain letters of yore.
Social media is designed to evoke interaction. When a consumer story is posted on social media, members of that person’s network react to it by expressing an opinion, reposting the story, providing support, and so on. Each of these generate its own momentum. A ‘like’, for example, encourages others in the network to also express their approval; a comment encourages others to respond to the comment; a re-post propagates the original post to other networks, creating a ripple effect. Collectively, these add significant weight to the original comment, turbo-charging the WoM effect.
Moreover, since the half-life of social media posts is usually hours or, at best, days, the original post spreads rapidly through the social media ecosystem. Thus, not only is WoM spread widely, but it is also very rapid.
An example of this is the interaction Stephen Curry, the Warrior’s NBA player, recently had with Riley Morrison, a nine-year-old girl who could not find a Stephen Curry-branded shoe in her size. Riley’s letter to Stephen complaining about this was posted on Instagram by her father and thereafter, Stephen responded and made appropriate amends.
The chart below captures the digital equivalent of the WoM in the 10 days between Riley’s letter being posted and Stephen’s response.
Co-opting consumers in marketing
Social media is a powerful platform that is ‘owned’ by the consumer and provides an opportunity to marketers to co-opt them in telling the brand story. SMM is how this co-option can be engineered so that the consumer is the marketer’s partner and not merely a user of a brand.