Yann Motte, CEO of Webjam, discusses the future of on-line brand building through social networking
Strong online branding is essential for companies that have no physical stores and no face to face contact with their customers.
For these companies consumer loyalty can only be ensured through a great brand reputation and a unique brand style online. In the past, creating online branding was simply a matter of placing material online.
Although over time, companies began to allow consumers to comment on their brands, although these comments were often censored. It is now common practice for brands to encourage consumers to share and remix brand content online through social networking sites.
Given that most purchasing decisions are now made online and are heavily influenced by friend recommendations, social media and social networking provide a powerful medium for brand building.
Social networking is becoming the conduit of choice for disseminating information very quickly, by making it easy to spread the word virally to “friends”. Add the ability to reach massive audiences (about whom you can access a lot of demographic and behavioural information) and you have a marketer’s dream.
That being said, the interaction is very superficial at present; brands need to go further in exploiting the potential to engage with their prospective followers that social media presents.
The holy grail for most organisations is to build a character around their brand values that transcends what the product or service itself provides – to move from being a simple purchasing choice to a lifestyle statement. For example, drinking an Innocent smoothie is now a fashionable green statement.
By allowing affinities between personalities to evolve toward affinities with a brand, social networks are a place where marketers can let brand personality blossom.
Facebook and MySpace have become the obvious choice for brands trying to break into the social networking space, but putting up a profile on these sites does not really achieve anything.
The popular sites are not necessarily the ideal channel for brands because there can be no one to one relationship between a brand and a consumer. Simply having Pampers as a “friend” is unlikely to alter a consumer’s purchasing decisions. As a result, in the past year, many brands have begun to show Facebook and MySpace fatigue, as the limitless possibilities that we saw in social network branding several years ago have brought little tangible reward.
These brand “pages” became little more than an advert embedded in a social networking site.
However, some companies have continued to develop the technology behind their social networks into something far more interactive which presents organisations and brands with far more possibilities. Giving online power to brand evangelists is the next step.
As both brands and users mature in their use of social networks, the future belongs to brands that will not only engage with their consumers but also empower them to create their own discussions on communities that they themselves manage.
Consumers will soon be able to repackage the brand in their own words, which they are doing on some forums already, through reviews and recommendations.
Brands may soon create their own social communities, with a goal more akin to social publishing than social networking. Social publishing refers to communities of consumers, who are drawn together online to form a community around a brand, a company or an organisation.
Although a brand cannot communicate with individual consumers, these communities of consumers can connect and build relationships amongst themselves. These consumers can then collaborate on their own projects, inspired by their favourite brand or organisation - a shared passion for anything from Hugo Boss clothing to helping Greenpeace stop whaling.
Social publishing allows consumer communities to cooperate across a wide variety of content such as blogs, forums, galleries, videos and polls.
Through user generated content (UGC), social networking and shared editing of web-pages, consumers with similar interests can now collaborate on a common goal. Additionally, consumers should be able to talk to each other freely and not have the brand as the hub for all communications.
However, brands may well choose to support community projects, such as sponsoring events or organising competitions.
As importantly, if the brand has succeeded in communicating about its values, then it is normal that users start talking about those values rather than the product itself. For example, if Adidas values sporting performance, then that is the type of discussions the brand should foster between its users.
Within a brand network consumers can exchange tips, ideas and opinions not only about the product or service, but also about what the brand means to them or helps them achieve.
The big brands have already harnessed this trend with off-line consumer magazines, such as OneLife Magazine for Land Rover. Not only does social networking allow brands to extend their brand values online, but it is also something that is now possible for even the smaller brands, given the low set-up and maintenance cost of such sites.
In the future, I foresee brands moving from placing a page on Facebook to creating their own interconnected branded communities through sites like Webjam.
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