What Makes A Brand Social?

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In following many of the higher ranked, populated and community-focused Blogs about Marketing, you will spot an interesting trend…

Many Bloggers (and their community members) feel that brands are not very "social" unless they are a part of the "conversation." Top-line, this does seem like common sense: for a brand to be trusted and accepted in Social Media it should be an active voice within the community. After all, if someone is complaining about (or applauding) your brand and you’re not responding, what does that say about you?

Brands don’t care?

Is it true that if a brand does not respond it is because it does not care? Do brands have any semblance of an acceptable reason not to be active participants in the online channels where their consumers are talking about, reviewing and attempting to engage with them? If a brand is saying, "we don’t have the human resources to really have these types of conversations," or "we’re not organized internally to appropriately deal with this type of communication" is that an acceptable response? Many (yes, I’m looking at you Joseph Jaffe) would say the answer is, "no." And, while I tend to agree, let’s also not forget that a brand can be social in other ways.

There are a lot of things about Social Media that we have forgotten or take for granted.

One of the core functions of Social Media is to make whatever it is that a brand is doing more open, shareable and findable. We tend to focus on the more intensive activities (like brand-to-individual communications) because Social Media has evolved so quickly, but it bears repeating and reflecting on that a brand that isn’t active within a conversation can still be very social in nature by simply sharing their content. While attending the Bazaarvoice Social Commerce Summit 2010 these past few days in Austin, Texas, it was amazing to see the retail brands (and beyond) that have customer reviews (or peer reviews) enabled on their sites, and those that are also active by leveraging another one of Bazaarvoice’s services called, Ask & Answer, and yet how challenged those exact same brands are when it comes to building a community (be it on their own with a Blog or Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc…).

Once again, your version of Social Media may not be their version of Social Media.

Would you then say that those brands are not engaged in Social Media simply because they’re grappling (both internally and externally) with how to engage in a conversation and how to turn those conversations into a community? Do all brands have to have that one-to-one dialogue? It’s an interesting thought to ponder. Brands that allow people to say whatever they want about their products and services on their own space and in any additional channel that the consumer wants is a highly social activity (if you ask me).

And, what is the strategy?

A good Social Media strategy could start (and end) with allowing your content to be more open. With allowing consumers to say whatever they want about it and to publish that content – not only on your own websites and platforms (for all to see) – but for that consumer generated content to be shared by consumers wherever they like as well. Enabling and empowering people to take pictures and post them to flickr, while other consumers create video reviews for places like YouTube, etc… are simple acts of brands opening up what they do to criticism. In doing so, those baseline acts seem very Social Media to me.

Or, do you think brands must do the conversation part/thing as well?


  1. Mitch is the “conversation part/thing” both listening and engaging? Because listening and making more informed business decisions based on the insights does in my opinion form a Social Media strategy. Especially if you’ve begun by asking a question of your audience. But engaging is like the icing on the cake; the best part. Social Media should be about the one-to-one interaction. That’s a real relationship. To consciously start the conversation by providing content without taking advantage of what comes after is most likely irresponsible. Typically there is too much opportunity in the engagement for it to be left ‘untapped’.

  2. Two personal examples:
    1) I love Porter Airlines. I’ve tweeted about. Other, more important/famous people have also tweeted about their love for Porter. No reaction. As a test, I tweeted “I love you Porter!” Still nothing. Amazing. I know some of their investors and sent them a proposal to help them. Nothing. They are poised for an IPO .. you would think they would be all over this.
    2) My daughter’s 1.5 yr oldDell Inspiron laptop had a catastrophic failure recently. I tweeted about it and polled people on whether I should fix it or toss it. Most said to toss it … garbage. Some said to toss it and get a refurbed Macbook. Not a peep from Dell … and they’re supposed to be strong at this!
    Missed opportunities to leverage and build on good things, or gain trust by fixing bad ones. Actually pretty shocking.

  3. There’s a question of scale here. do you respond to everything? No. A brand (being an abstraction) even with a defined reply person, can’t possibly keep up with everything without breaking the illusion of real connection?
    Not many brands have the opportunity to engage in a consistent way over time. Small companies have wider agility for this, but even they want to play like the big kids and keep their mouths shut sometimes.
    Necessary for brands to converse? No.
    Necessary for people to understand that a lack of discussion doesn’t always mean disinterest? Yes.
    We’re still waiting for the second part of that to really happen,a ren’t we?

  4. I completely agree. I think it’s important to point out how valuable engaging is. People hate to be ignored and it’s pretty easy to feel ignored when trying to communicate with a brand. On the other hand I find it pleasantly surprising when I get a meaningful response from a company. This is especially true when my original message was negative. If I know that the company has heard me, I’m likely to stick around, but if I’m not made aware that my grievances are at least being heard I’ll leave. This behavior is not uncommon and this is a large reason why brands need to join the conversation, not just observe.
    It’s the conversation, which takes listening and talking, that really defines social media in my mind. Producing content isn’t enough.

  5. Good media strategy definitely includes social media. If a brand does not utilize this marketing strategy they are considered out of touch or to be lacking the resources to effectively compete in the very effective forum. More and more brands are joining in the game. As with anything, money drives business. I think as time goes by social media marketing will become the norm.

  6. It comes down to customer service. Sure, being present and providing your customers a place to help each other is open and social, but it doesn’t show you’re listening.
    Consumers have helped themselves for years in message boards, but a brand becomes more social when they listen. Think about a real-life conversation. How do you let someone know you’re listening? You respond.
    It’s a half-measure. What if the brand sponsored a conference or town hall meeting but didn’t attend? Yes, they’d get some credit for setting it up, but their absence speaks volumes about their real interests.
    In the evolution of customer service, social media follows Contact Us email support which followed 1.800 phone support. What if the brand never answered the phone or replied to your email?
    Ian, if you want to learn why/how Comcast, Virgin America and AT&T think social media customer care can scale, check out my recent interviews: http://blog.gettrustworthy.com

  7. Great discussion here. I agree that it’s impossible for most brands to engage with every tweet – large or small scale, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. However, a brand can choose to respond to some and show a general presence. Take the “radio call-in concept.” I think people understand the challenge to have personal responses for tweets, but intermittent responses are enough to show you’re paying attention and that you care.

  8. I do agree with the ideas expressed in the post. It is quiet natural that brand names are a factor but the whole thing lie with the social acceptance of the brand. When people talk more about a particular brand, its value in the market also increases proportionately. Thanks for sharing the post.

  9. I think it takes mature leadership and advanced communication skills to be able to engage with customers (online and elsewhere). Some companies simply don’t know how to speak with customers when they complain or have issues, maybe THAT is the real issue, not that companies don’t understand Twitter or other conversational tools.

  10. Branding to me is about credibility and relevance.
    Consistent, reliable, quality communication and service are critical.
    Branding to me is about ALL the things an organization does. Quality of the products/service, and organization of the whole value chain such that everyone is aligned for customer service is a key.
    If support, service and awareness are cultivated using the social media as well, then social media interaction is part of the branding.

  11. Conversation is an art. Too many brands (products and services) jumped into social media without honing their conversational skills. Step One – Listen. Step Two – Listen Step Three – Listen Step – Initiate engagement with those that are engaging because it is impossible to be all things to all people, thus engage with all people. I am beginning to learn that engagement is tailing off as people are either losing interest in social media or just too busy, thus not commited to the time involved. No surprise, consistent with having a conversation with someone live – they rarely ask that second question, their mind wonders so they are not listening. As I said Conversation is an art.
    One last thought: Brands need a social media strategy, but they also need a customer service strategy which is a whole different animal. Live vs. pressing one for English, two for Spanish.

  12. Hi! Very interesting thread here! I agree that social media is indeed both listening and engaging our consumers. However, I have been also reading and hearing about the market reality that roadblocks are being faced either in lacking resourcing front or the focus in restructuring the organisation to transform the various touch points, including social media to be listen and engage in an integrated platform.
    An interesting update from Dell I browsed recently may be helpful – how Dell’s social media program is evolving http://ow.ly/1CyIC (scroll down for Video and Presentation Deck).

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