Branding in Social Media Spaces

To agree or disagree…  That is the question.

Statement: “Users didn’t join Social Networks in order to interact with brands, but now find themselves increasingly surrounded by branded communications in Social Media spaces. The platforms want to earn revenue as they mature, and now face the challenge of keeping their users happy. The interests of users will remain in opposition to those of platform owners and brands marketing through their services.”

We disagree with this statement.

“Users didn’t join Social Networks in order to interact with brands but now find themselves increasingly surrounded by branded communications in Social Media spaces.”

Users may have joined social networks to be social, but far more than in traditional media, users on social networks have the choice to engage with brands or not.  In the offline world, they really have little choice; you cannot avoid the myriad of billboards around as an example.  People are used to seeing branded communications in their physical worlds, but within social media spaces, for the most part, branded messaging can only be received on an opt-in basis.  In this way, they choose to be surrounded by the messaging, it doesn’t just happen.  And even in the case of communications like Facebook ads, that come up automatically, just as you’d ignore them in the offline world, you can choose not to click on an advert.

“The platforms want to earn revenue as they mature, and now face the challenge of keeping their users happy.”

People are not oblivious to the fact that the only way to make money on the web is to create traffic and then offer advertisers access to your traffic base, so to see advertising on any online platform, social or not, is not unusual, as it is not unusual to see adverts in your favourite magazine.  The difference is that because of the technologies employed online, you are likely to be seeing adverts that are aimed at you as the target market, in which case they may be less of an intrusion.  If you have opted into receiving branded communications, you are also likely to be interested in what these brands have to say or offer.  I don’t think that users would be unhappy with branded communications in social media spaces if the messaging is likely to be of interest to them.

“The interests of users will remain in opposition to those of platform owners and brands marketing through their services.”

Platforms are able to change their terms and conditions at any time in order to make sure that branded communications do not become obtrusive to their users.  Reporting spam and other tenuous content is certainly much easier to do online, than writing a letter to your local newspaper about an offensive advert, and thus users can be heard very quickly, and platforms can take necessary action.

The statement also seems to negate the fact that not all branded communication is being shared by the brands themselves; messaging is being passed on by people within these networks that believe someone they know might be interested.   The phenomenon of social commerce is not acknowledged by the statement and the fact that brands are not the only influencers of ‘advertising’ and sales prompted via social media.

While many brands are still experimenting with social media to drive sales, one thing is for sure that conceptually it seems to be working.  People in social networks seem to be responding to campaigns, but this is not surprising, because they appear to be getting good deals that may not be offered offline.  The concept of group buying is an example of this.  I doubt that if 40 people walked into a travel agent demanding a group rate that it would be that easy to get.  Whereas with the low cost of sale that online facilitation provides, it’s far easier for brands to offer deals on this group basis.  It’s also unlikely you’d be able to get all 40 people to go the travel agent all at the same time, so inviting them to sign up online from the comfort of their own workspace is far more effective.  Who wouldn’t choose to get branded communications from brands or from peers if it meant getting a really good deal?  As with social network storefronts, those that opt in to the brand can get really great deals online, so it’s not just about receiving branded communications; it’s also about being rewarded for doing so, and people are far more open to receiving these messages if it means there’s something in it for them.

User reviews and ratings also allow online shoppers to easily see what other people have bought before in their area of interest and these messages are not from brands at all, but still drive sales due to the psychology involved: buyers will trust people they think are like them and have the same interests.

The concept of social commerce is far more intricate than the statement admits.  It has less to do with being spoken to about a product and buying it; and more to do with being involved in the sales process, and since social media platforms are all about involvement, engagement and conversation, I cannot see that they would not want their users to be able to access these types of interactions and take advantage of any special deals that might be offered by brands.

Buying behaviour online is far less conservative than it used to be and likely to be even less so in the future, so online selling is here to stay.  Not to mention that the low cost of selling online is very attractive to businesses, so social platforms are the ideal place for brands to flog their wares, but they need to get far smarter at how they do it.  It’s not just low cost for businesses, it’s also low effort for users: with one click they can choose to go elsewhere, so messaging really needs to be engaging and worth sharing.  If brands intend to use these channels as another channel for pure advertising, then the statement could possibly be true.  People are inundated with advertising messaging and have become very adept at filtering out ad-speak; which is why social media campaigns need to take note of the social influence factors that are at play in social commerce.  Give people something great to share (scarcity, consistency and reciprocation), allow them to become influencers for your brand (social validation, authority and liking) and this will likely influence your sales in a very positive way.

With e-commerce payment engines already in Beta phases and Facebook testing its own payment gateway at the moment, it is likely that social media platforms will evolve into highly efficient sales tools, almost virtual shopping malls, but unlike websites that offer payment gateways for their own products, social shopping platforms will be driven by trusted sources and individuals rather than brands that advertise.  It is possible that they could turn into affiliate hubs of their own, where brands may no longer have to advertise; influencers could end up being their gateways to the communities that follow them already, with brands only providing distribution of purchased goods.  This also means that companies will have to ensure that their products deliver on their promises, because negativity can spread even quicker than positivity, and as far as the consumer is concerned, businesses delivering on promises and competing to provide the best service they can, can only be a good thing.  What the community says about the brand and its products becomes far more important than the ad-speak of the brand, almost making advertising on these platforms null and void eventually.

So while users may not choose to be surrounded by branded communications, they are surrounded by recommendations from their peers, and this is all that marketers aim to do – create positive word of mouth, because this is by far the strongest marketing tool of all.  And social media provides exactly this – a word of mouth mechanism that shares branded communications far better than any brand could do alone.


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