The future – once a far-flung destination toward which businesses headed – has arrived. The days when marketers could rely on long-term campaign planning as the best way to marshal their brands for growth are over.
In media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock, he argues that we exist in a world where technological advancement has allowed us to live in "real time". In effect, marketers need not worry about the future at all, because, alongside the proliferation of real-time marketing and instant gratification, consumers are living in, recording and sharing their present like never before; this is, therefore, where marketers must aim the bulk of their attention.
"Twentieth-century problems could be won, they had bad guys that could be beaten. You could go to the moon and stick a flag in the ground. But 21st-century problems don’t have clear end points. Global warming, terrorism, child starvation: these are chronic problems that we can’t address through victory, but rather through developing sustainable, real-time models or behaviours. These aren’t things you win, they’re things you learn to deal with and abate." This also applies to the world of marketing.
With the continued ascent of the "social newsroom", there is no end to the issues marketers face, but a constant "now" in which consumer interactions must be managed in a sustainable way.
Marketing must therefore have a stronger focus on connecting with a collection of consumers making decisions in real time – with no climax in sight. It is no surprise, then, that many marketers are struggling to know where to start.
While the social newsroom may not be a new phenomenon, many brands are not exploiting it to its full potential. To date, brands have often interpreted the social newsroom in one of two ways: as adding a social element to their websites or newsfeed, or as a much broader move toward real-time listening and response via social channels. Brands such as Gatorade and Nokia have created "mission control"-style hubs where consumer interactions are monitored in real time.
However, some believe that the social newsroom hasn’t actually been very social at all. "The social newsroom doesn’t exist yet. [When] brands are trying to spark conversations with consumers, they are often in isolation and not integrated with the reality of consumers’ lives," argues Neil Kleiner, head of social at creative agency AIS London. In short, marketers are guilty of forgetting that they operate within the context of consumers’ platforms, rather than the walled gardens of their own.
isn't about broadcasting, but about genuine conversation.
Jim Coleman, managing partner at social-media marketing agency We Are Social, says that, in some ways, the newsroom metaphor is potentially misleading for brands. "Ultimately, this isn’t about broadcasting, but about genuine conversation," he explains. "If a brand is able to participate in a wider conversation, they are aware of the context and can add to that community and improve their ability to better connect with their consumers."
The biggest mistake many brands make is to view social as simply another sales channel. "Brands like Red Bull and Pepsi have been successful on social channels because they have a listening-based model and they think carefully about how to talk to their consumers and offer them reasons to engage," notes Andrew Jennings, social director of social agency Socialyse.
However, there are signs that the industry is, at last, embracing authentic, conversational marketing. Vicky Chowney, head of community at agency TMW, believes that now the social-media industry has successfully navigated the "terrible twos" stage, brands have become much better at listening.
"In reality, when brands say that they are ‘embracing real time’, what they really mean is that the time it takes them to respond to consumers is improving," she adds. "It’s very resource-heavy and having a huge team dedicated to [social listening] is not something all brands have the structure to support."
At the heart of the social-media newsroom is a well-thought-out content-marketing strategy. However, the clumsy distinction between "paid", "owned" and "earned" media, often promoted by media agencies intent on protecting their existing business models, has the potential to lead marketers down the wrong path when considering their strategy.
With budgets continuing to be placed under intense pressure, the implication that "earned media" requires little to no investment is misleading. A growing number of brands embracing the concept of the social newsroom have invested in content creation, but failed to devote any budget to promoting it. These brands are guilty of contributing to the ever-expanding wasteland of content, which few consumers will ever set eyes on.
Jez Dutton, planning director at WPP joint venture Grey Possible, says that it is important for brands to recognise that building a campaign around consumer engagement doesn’t equate to media exposure. "Creating content is not a silver bullet; there is always an assumption that you can do things at a lot lower cost. You can’t simply brand activity as earned media and expect your consumers to do the legwork for you."
Indeed, it seems that many marketers need to be reminded that social media is not free, and creating content is often the beginning, not the end, of their marketing journey. Social-media experts believe that marketers must beware of placing too much belief in the power of "viral".
"Viral is in itself a misleading term, which obscures the way in which content is disseminated and distributed," explains Paul Adams, global head of design at Facebook. "There is a myth that content will just take off and explode, but these are isolated events and it is important to remember that most content is not viral."
Lost in translation
Ironically, the terminology of social media is at risk of being the industry’s undoing. Consumers persuaded to "like" a brand to enter a competition or gain some other reward have devalued the concept and, in effect, changed the underlying meaning of the word. Headlines declaring that Facebook is to charge users to connect with "non-friends" show how much social media has entered, obscured and often confused the marketing vernacular.
'Fans' and 'likes' are easily measurable and easy to publish, so that's why the industry has gravitated toward them; but just because they are tangible doesn't make them right.
Dan Hagen, head of planning at media agency Carat, says: "I don’t think social has been guilty of making up bullshit terms more than any other type of marketing, but it has been just as guilty." However, according to Hagen, the bigger guilt lies with those who have believed the "I have more fans than you" hype. He urges brands to take a step back and focus on their real objectives. "‘Fans’ and ‘likes’ are easily measurable and easy to publish, so that’s why [the industry] has gravitated toward them; but just because they are tangible doesn’t make them right."
The fact remains that many consumers simply do not want to be "friends" with an inanimate object, or "like" their bank; they simply want a decent service or product. However, smart agencies are investing in brand ambassadors to foster more authentic conversations and relationships with their consumers.
Grant Hunter, regional creative director at Iris Worldwide, which handles social media for the Adidas, Mini and Johnnie Walker brands, says harnessing the power of brand ambassadors gives brands a credible way to connect with consumers.
"With Adidas, we created content with Lionel Messi on Vine and shared content from him across platforms to drive engagement with a new boot launch. Even with low-interest categories, if you can create interesting content and tie [it] in with different cultural events, it is possible to drive interest and build a genuine conversation."
The age of opinion
The passion with which some people use social media means the speed and intensity of consumer response can be ferocious. A brand’s reputation can rise or fall in the space of 140 characters, so it is no surprise that many marketers are fearful of the darker side of the social-media newsroom.
Facebook’s Adams says that, in many ways, consumers’ urge to share their opinions is nothing new. "What is clear is that the way in which people think about things changes much more slowly than technology. There is a history of people focusing on difference, and this means we often get things out of perspective, where in fact the motivations behind how people behave are remarkably consistent," he adds.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the youth market is demanding that brands not only listen to it, but acknowledge its voice. Derren Lawford, head of content at youth-engagement agency Livity, says that people have always sought to share their opinion in order to gain social validation. "Whether these opinions are fully formed or not, their opinions need to be acknowledged," he adds.
According to Lawford, the challenge for brands is to distinguish between what they don’t want to hear and what feedback is just cynical. "Every brand needs to have coping strategies. The challenge is to know when to dive in and when not to," he says.
Beware of the backlash
With every trend comes a counter-trend, and the rise of the social newsroom has been no exception. Over the past 12 months a flurry of blogs by creative directors has lampooned the focus on "driving conversation". A handful in the industry still seems to see their own lack of engagement, or lack of time for social media, as a warped badge of honour. This raises an important question: would the marketers who claim not to have time for Twitter say the same about a 30-second TV spot?
Carat’s Hagen says it is not surprising that some creative directors don’t want conversational marketing. "If you no longer need a 60-second TV ad, they are out of a job," he explains. "The fact is, we need to be exploring it. When you are doing something big, there is little space for ego and opinion."
Ultimately, many brands have been guilty of jumping on the bandwagon and beginning conversations that no consumer in their right mind would consider engaging with in the real world. Jason Barrett, creative technology director at ad agency McCann Erickson, says there is a risk that brands overemphasise the degree to which consumers want to engage with them.
Social media has promised the world – it is such a force within the industry. Used carefully, it can fulfil a specific objective, but marketers don't always think it through properly.
"You wouldn’t necessarily start a conversation about ‘scrunching or folding your toilet paper’, or see a national disaster as a way to talk about online shopping," he points out. "The key for brands is to listen to what consumers are already talking about and ensure that they are giving consumers a big enough reward for engaging with them."
Helen Lawrence, strategist at creative agency BBH London, believes the key for every brand is to establish the right space where it is credible to talk to consumers. "Social media has promised the world – it is such a force within the industry," she says. "Used carefully, it can fulfil a specific objective, but marketers don’t always think it through properly."
The underlying tension between the social newsroom and marketing objectives was thrown into sharp relief following April’s Boston Marathon bombings. Badly timed marketing tweets, alongside a rash of those from social-media marketers declaring that now was not the time for marketing activity, stood in sharp contrast to appeals for information about runners. On many levels, the notion that one’s first response to a tragedy would be to ponder publicly the implications for social-media marketing is in itself inhumane.
Herein lies the fundamental challenge of the social newsroom and the biggest lesson for marketers; Twitter may well be a real-time news service, but it can be completely devoid of editorial judgement. It’s all too easy for social-media platforms to become a torrent of misinformation, while scheduled brand messages instantly become completely out of place and inappropriate.
Consumers expect brands to know when to shut up. Acknowledging and engaging with consumers has never been more important and the challenges posed to marketers by the social newsroom are here to stay. In the words of Rushkoff: "We must either accept that, and use our new technology to create a happier, present-based society, or constantly fight against it, in a losing battle against an always-on, always-connected economy."
In the marketing world, at least, not having time for Twitter or ignoring the social newsroom is no longer a sustainable strategy. Nevertheless, marketers must remember they are operating in consumers’ space and tread carefully.
Beware of the backlash: how marketers are meeting the challenge of the virtual present
The phenomenal benefits of the social newsroom and the sharing economy, where consumers are co-creating and disseminating marketing messages via social platforms, cannot be denied. However, the personal and professional pressures of this always-on, digital-driven economy are equally difficult to ignore.
As many consumers embrace the philosophy of "tweet before you eat", and the greatest live events are filtered by the omnipresent smartphone, living in the now has lost its meaning. In the words of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff: "By dividing our attention between our digital extensions, we sacrifice our connection to the truer present in which we are living."
Rushkoff coined the term "Digiphrenia" to describe the confused mental state that comes from having too many identities running in parallel. Both personally and professionally, marketers are at the sharp end of this seemingly endless digital bombardment.
Just as the consumer whose precious enjoyment of a live concert is usurped by the need to record and share the music, the marketer "live tweeting" a conference has little time to filter or process the information in front of them. In both cases there is an argument that experience and perspective are irrevocably damaged.
In this way, Rushkoff contends that consumers are constantly at risk of chasing what has already happened and ignoring whatever is going on now. Similarly, our ability as individuals to truly live in the moment is hampered by the constant need to update a plethora of digital platforms, shifting our attention away from the here and now.
In many ways marketers face the same challenges as consumers. In the post-digital age, knowing when to switch off is vital. Being part of the conversation may well be the key to social marketing, but there is a growing need for marketers to acknowledge the mantra that half of all art, and by extension, marketing, is knowing when to stop.