OPINION2 December 2011

Get in with the crowd


Social media has made it easier for people to find like-minded groups, but these crowds can be tough for brands to penetrate. Pete Comley offers some advice.

Social media has changed many things about our society and the way we interact with one another. It allows people to share details of their life in a way that was just not possible a decade ago, leading to closer links with many more like-minded people. Before Facebook, people operated in relatively small, geographically limited circles. Now, with the ability to communicate with a vast number of people online, people are able to search for groups (or crowds) that are most like them.

Mobile access is the spark that is really driving this “My Crowd” trend. Half of all active Facebook users access their service on a mobile device. Smartphones are creating an always-on connectedness which supports what I call “now-ism”. Apps and websites like Facebook Events, Foursquare, Likeourselves and Twitter allow for planned spontaneity between friends – meetings arranged in real time, not in advance. Mobile has also blurred the barriers between work, home and play into something the Future Laboratory calls “BLeisure”. But this has its downsides, with people finding it increasingly difficult to switch off and relax (as I discussed in my piece on the My Time trend).

Social media has its downsides too. Businesses can find it difficult to work successfully in the consumer-driven and reactionary environments of Facebook and Twitter, as Habitat discovered in 2009 when, during the unrest in Iran, it added Iran-related keywords (called hashtags) to its Twitter messages so people searching for those subjects would also see the firm’s adverts. Users were not impressed.

Commenting on this incident, Alex Burmaster, then of Nielsen Online, said: “Advertising in social media can be like gatecrashing a party. People who use social media are much less tolerant of having their conversations interrupted by advertisers. The art is in being able to tap into those conversations without alienating people.”

Indeed there is currently much debate on how brands can best respond to the “My Crowd” trend. Jake Bailey of RichRelevence recently stated that some social media strategies risk “forsaking your relationships with your customers with no hope of future insights, spending money with little transparency on ROI, unknowingly sponsoring a privacy scandal, or placing your brand in a compromising situation”.

According to Trendwatching.com an ideal strategy is to “find consumers to become curators” for your brand. They can then use their social networks for “actively broadcasting, remixing, compiling, commenting, sharing and recommending content, products, purchases and experiences to both their friends and wider audiences”.

Brands can potentially find these people by using social media monitoring systems to look for the influencers who post about their brand. However, making this strategy work is fraught with difficulties and opinion is divided on its efficacy.

Here are some more ideas to consider:

  1. Some brands have been using ‘random acts of kindness’ to tap into the growth of social media and create positive word of mouth for their brand. For example Interflora has been using a social media campaign designed to brighten up the lives of Twitter users by sending them flowers. It monitors the site looking for those it believes might need cheering up. Once found, the users are contacted by tweet, and sent a bouquet of flowers as a surprise. Such random acts of kindness could have great word-of-mouth value and might well be the branded equivalent of planned spontaneity.
  2. Consider bringing the social media world into the offline world. Channel 4’s Mary Portas Secret Shopper persuaded the fashion retailer Pilot to install a “tweet mirror” in their stores so people could instantly get feedback on their clothes. Furthermore retailers could make greater use of hyperlinks on high-interest products to allow people in store to find out more from social media microsites (either by displaying simple URLs, QR barcodes or, in the future, using near-field communication device link-ups).
  3. Brands need to create opportunities for social media events, e.g. for the launch of new products, their sponsorships, key retail events like Valentine’s Day, sales. The analogy here is TV events like Eurovision, where many now enjoy reading the simultaneous Twitter feed as much as they do the TV broadcast itself.
  4. Brands could facilitate user aggregation of personalised information or products. Already the Flipboard iPad app creates a bespoke magazine that can cull articles of interest from a user’s preferred news sources and their social networks and present this information in an engaging way. A slightly less ambitious alternative might be for a brand to create bespoke user content (e.g. a newsletter or app) that mashes together content about the product area with information from their social media site. This content could include information from people the person knows or collated results of surveys the user has done with their own views and responses.

Pete Comley is chairman of Join the Dots