Ideally, this post was due in 2011, but today is the last day of 2013 and without much ado, here I go!
From the state explained in the two earlier posts…
… things have significantly changed.
The first thing the clients (or, prospects) ask now is, ‘What kind of percentage increase in our fanbase can we expect if we sign you up?’. So you see, the cookie cutter approach to fans remain, but they are also asking questions like, ‘What kind of PTAT would you maintain on Facebook?’ and the occasional, ‘Would you help us with an overall tone for our social properties?’ (Phew! At last!).
At a very, very basic level, agencies (regardless of what they call themselves – digital, social, PR or advertising) could offer social media services across three distinct areas.
1. Brands as media outlets (long-term)
Beyond merely going by examples of Facebook page management, this is the larger brand-as-media approach. It could even extend to websites, microsites, besides the usual laundry list of social media platforms.
This includes one or more properties (either created afresh, or taking over from an earlier operation, handled in-house or by another agency) like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest etc.
The level of complexity in managing the properties depends on the kind of predominant content format they deal with. YouTube is the most complex, by nature, given it is exclusively video content. But videos can be created with even with mobile phones, these days, so, technically it is not that complex. What is complex is that videos need a script or an idea to be interesting – merely posting random videos is utterly pointless. In comparison, Twitter and Facebook are easier to manage, given the dependence on text and images, primarily. Pinterest is tougher, in this scale, given the dependence on story-telling via images, than random images.
The story-telling is the crux, anyway. Just think of it like your brand owns a magazine – how would the magazine consistently be interesting to its readers, day after day? Do you know who is reading your magazine? How would you bring fresh readers to your magazine? The magazine angle helps you manage properties better, than treating them as just a ‘Facebook page’.
This is simply how brands are able to add the ‘Follow us on’ and add a few social media logos in their print ads. The thought process for brands seems to be, ‘If someone has bothered to see our print ad., they’d love to see what we do on our Facebook page’. Unfortunately, what most brands end up doing on Facebook (or Twitter, given the low barrier to create content, unlike YouTube) is a combination of inspirational quotes, film stars’ pics (usually without permission) and connecting them with the brand in some obscure manner, a promotional plug for the brand, something about how Mondays are universally reviled, a weekly contest and so on. All this, in the name of making the brand seem human. The unfortunate problem is that almost all brands are using the same tactics to seem human and we have a sea of brands as humans doing largely the same thing.
From where we started, 5 years ago, to start making brands seem human, because, you see it is ‘social’ media, we have arrived at a stage where all brands seem human for the same reasons and for the same things they say. There is perhaps a pressing need to think this differently in the current scenario. For example, how about the brand considering this question: How can we, as a brand, have people craving to read our newsletter/brochure day after day (on Facebook)? This changes the focus – to create interesting, engaging brand-related content so that your audience is built not on expecting inspirational quotes (for which there are million other sources), but on looking forward to more from the brand, in an exciting tone/manner. The numbers will no doubt dip, but at least they will all be relevant and genuinely interested in your content/brand.
Or, like how Hippo and Cafe Cuba are doing it, take the brand to an incidental plane and just be very, very interesting! This is a great example of a razor sharp focus on brand personality. This, in a way, is really making the brand seem human! It is a glorified brochure, one tweet at a time, no doubt, but it is mighty interesting to read, every tweet!
Then, there needs to be a specific and consistent plan to help the content reach its intended audiences. If Facebook claims only below-10% reach for a 1 million fan base, beyond cribbing about it, brands need to formulate a media plan to help the content (created for a fee, by agencies, with a lot of thought and effort, to augment a brand story) fly. ‘We will post and people will do the reading and sharing’ doesn’t work anymore. Even the sharing part needs to be baked into the content plan – for instance, if you’re planning a great update for Valentine’s Day, you need to identify relevant online influencers to help you spread it (Why would they do it? What’s in it for them? – have you considered these first?), enlist them in advance and orchestrate the reach.
The third – and most vital – dependency is listening! Owned properties is one tiny portion of the online cesspool. There are people (depending on your category of product/service) talking about every single possible brand online, all across the internet. Brands that care need to have a mechanism in place to consistently gather what is being spoken about, bucket them into prominent topics and have it sent to appropriate people within the organizational system. Whether they do something about it can be considered later, depending on a larger, organization structure around real-time/delayed-time online responses, but merely having them listen consistently is a huge plus – it’d spur a lot of action.
2. Social media intervention for an offline/digital campaign (short-term) AND
3. Stand-alone social media/digital campaign (short-term)
The primary purpose here needs to be rethought, from, ‘We need to run a campaign on Facebook’, or ‘We need a Twitter campaign’ – to – ‘We want to gather people who are thinking about selling cars in a destination owned by us’ (replace ‘selling owned cars’ to anything that is applicable to your business – underwear, chewing gum, soap etc. or specific actions, like ‘gather people around women’s empowerment’, ‘breast cancer awareness’, ‘people looking for LED lamps’ etc.). The destination could be just about anything – even something as seemingly transient as a hashtag – it need not be a physical location/destination online (virtual, that is). Why hashtag, it can even be a single YouTube video! Even better – it can even be a teaser video! My favorite social media campaign is HRC’s brilliant multi-channel campaign (another take) online!
These use one or more online platforms and the mix needs to be arrived at based on the target audience a brand/action/service demands. If, for instance, the target audience is defined as ‘lorry drivers in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana’, the agency would need to do its homework on how many lorry drivers exist in these 3 states, if they use Facebook (at all), what other digital tools (like say, text message, whatsapp etc.) do they really use… and so on.
Then, the property (ies) needs a plan to orchestrate reach, whether via paid promotions online, or working with online influencers. But, this plan needs to be baked into the campaign plan. Organic spread used to work in the early days of social media – now, it is chaos out there. If you want your so-called awesome content to fly, you need to help it fly.
The need for real-time monitoring (too many social media campaigns are derailed by annoyed fans and detractors these days – JP Morgan example, Toronto Maple Leaf’s SeaOfBlue example) and the need to have a tangible objective are obvious, nowadays. So, ‘We’d like to have 15,000 new followers on Twitter’ Vs. ‘We’d like to have 200 store visits’ – the former is usually done by agencies with a short-term approach; offer freebies and ask people to follow. They will, but just consider the kind of followers the brand is gathering.
Having cleared the kind of social media interventions, here are the agency-side dynamics.
Agencies started by selling platform creation and management (brand as media).
This has now been severely commoditized. This is a cottage industry now, with agencies willing to do it even for INR 20,000 a month – the ‘pay peanuts and you get monkeys’ caveat stays, no doubt. Unless agencies use low-cost resources (interns?), competing on these prices and creating meaningful/useful content is an uphill task. Add to it, the need for creative folks, visualizers, designers etc., the cost goes up progressively. There is also a school of thought which goes, ‘Oh, but social media content is easy – a person can do everything from writing copy, creating on the fly images and video and do community management too’. This, in my opinion, is the bane of social media content being so consistently useless. For brands, this is nothing short of an embarassment – they’d never even dream of putting such content out on print or on TV (because they are spending a LOT of money for that exposure; and by the same logic, since they are putting up content for free online, the ‘anything goes’ content happens on social media).
From a PR agency point of view, this is as commoditized as media relations. From an ad. agency point of view, there is no equivalent, but they tend to look down upon daily content creation (and responses) in the face of opportunities to work on multiple brands and multiple campaigns. This is changing, however, with more and more advertising agencies managing social media properties consistently well given the kind of resources and people at its disposal, particularly the creative ones who can do the story-telling part really well. But the costs cannot be at the lowly INR 20K a month, understandably.
In a way, most agencies have figured that this content management business for social media properties is a thankless task from all points of view – people, money, glory. Since the demand for content is constant, every piece of content cannot be a world famous stand-out. One in 6/12 months will end up as that; the rest will be what we can run-rate content and creating run-rate content becomes a chore. The people handling it need to be consistently motivated… it’s a vicious cycle, really. Add the monitoring and responding part to this equation, things start to seem even more like a chore! The lower the cost, the more it tends to be run-rate content. If run-rate content helps your brand in some way, then this low cost option is great for you. If not, it is time to get out of this run-rate content rut and focus on quality content for social media – and this costs money, even if social media is supposedly free.
In comparison, campaigns are exciting. They come with their own timelines and objectives, and pay better, usually. But the need for creative translation in case an offline campaign needs an online/social media intervention or a stand-alone social media campaign is very, very high. There are brands and agencies that still think, ‘If we ask people to use a hashtag, they will’ without ever pausing to think, ‘Why would they even bother doing it?’ + ‘What the hell is there in it, for them to do so?’. A microsite + a contest and an app do not make a campaign anymore. App tractions (whether on social platforms like Facebook or on mobile) are already very poor in India. Contests have been severely abused on social media and the focus merely seems to be getting participation from as many people as possible without looking at the kind of audiences being gathered.
The point of it all? Simple. We are staring at the end of ‘social media’ as a stand-alone business. It had its time, but it is increasingly looking unsustainable, not just from an agency revenue point of view, but, more importantly, from an integrated communication point of view. There are independent agencies that are holding fort, but what they are doing seems more like a stand-alone ‘social media’ effort than a brand communication in the overall scheme of things. Brands and brand managers are to blame too – usually there is a separate ‘social media brief’ from the point of view of what the brand managers think they need out of social media (I have heard of a ‘LinkedIn brief’ too, by the way!). In my head, there is just a brand communication brief – social media is merely one manifestation within that, if appropriate as a tool from the brand’s audience point of view. It is up to an agency to look at the best modes of communication to help achieve the objectives in the brief and offer sound logic and insights on why it has chosen those modes of communication.
For larger brands, it makes a lot more sense to have in-house teams for listening/monitoring and customer responses.
For brands-as-media (or, in simple terms, ‘platform management’), it makes sense to hand it over to an agency that works closely with the brands communications and marketing team (either in-house or agency-led) so that what is being communicated in those platforms is completely in-sync with what is being communicated in print, TV and PR. Not integrating them completely beats the purpose of being available in social media these days. This is as much story-telling as creating a television commercial, only, it is broken down to smaller pieces to last (sustaining interest) over a week or a month, taking in feedback from people and so on. Merely putting up an inspirational quote and asking people to ‘Hit like if you agree’ is not part of this strategy – that’s what INR 20K a month will get you anyway. A brand is better off updating its social media properties fewer times a week than do it for the heck it twice a day – quality vs quantity is real, and now!
For campaigns, it obviously needs to be handed over to someone (an agency) that can,
– Creatively translate an otherwise offline campaign idea (in case of extending an offline campaign into social) to suit social media audiences OR understand social media audience behaviour enough to craft an engaging campaign
– Handle creative demands/requirements inherently – this is non-negationable these days. Coding, however, can be outsourced, but creatives cannot be, in my opinion.
– Handle paid media support online. This is good old media buying, but with a twist – you cannot merely pass it on to another agency when the need is real-time media buying! The coordination between two agencies can be a very costly miss for good quality content that has a time-angle to its life.
Long story short:
1. Run-rate content is cheap, but pointless
Creating run-rate content online is easy and cheap. But massively useless. Assuming you spend a minimum (lowly!) of INR 50K a month (INR 6 lakhs an year), someone is bound to – finally – ask, ‘What the hell did we achieve with all this?’. This question will arrive faster if you’re also spending money to promote each/most pieces of content (like Facebook’s promoted posts).
Ideally, content’s value kicks-in when you can arrive at something like this at the end of a period – ‘We have been able to communicate that we are best online furniture store. 2 lakh+ people seem to think so, at the very least and we have put this assumption to test via 4 campaigns last year, resulting in X conversions (where X is online store visits, cart check-outs etc.). Such concerted effort in online content does not come cheap.
2. Social media engagement = creativity + insight + paid promotion
Social media campaigns are really a coming together of creativity, social media audience behavior nuance/insight/awareness and paid media spends. If 3 different agencies handle each of these 3 parts, the brand better have a super efficient coordinator who can work 24X7 in reigning in the 3 agencies to achieve the desired outcome. In the simpler, earlier days, it was as simple as posting an update on Facebook or Twitter and responding to 100+ people in real time… and going to sleep peacefully over a job well done. Most brands aren’t content with this now, having tasted blood or having seen larger, bigger engagements of other brands.
3. Stand-alone social media agencies are dead. Or, dying.
Stand-alone social media agencies are dead. Or, will be, soon. Or, will be acquired by larger agencies (another example). Or, will be forced to expand to offer more than platform management (which used to be their bread and butter) like creative services, integration with other media campaigns and/or online media buying.
Selling social media services alone is increasingly starting to look like advertising agencies selling print advertisements alone as a service, or PR agencies selling press releases alone as a service. I’m all for niche specialization, and there is perhaps a definite need for such specialization depending on the size of the client and the geos they are targeting (in India), but, as a sustainable business, to scale, this may not be enough.
Without taking names (cannot afford to), I know of at least 12 stand-alone social media (and digital media – many of them call themselves that too) agencies that are up for sale, are looking at a merger with another agency to expand the scale of services, are in active talks with larger agencies or are in the process of completing the paperwork for a sale or an acquisition. That says a lot about the business model they have chosen for themselves – it may have been perfectly functional and profitable back when they started, 3-5 years ago, but given the evolution (explained above in excrutiating detail), things have changed for good, forcing this update.
4. Integrated campaigns are in, like never before!
Integrated is not just in (as in fashionable), it is the only way to go. The earlier brands realize that social media is just another tool in the arsenal to reach people (like television, like print, like billboards, like emails etc.), the better. Each of these tools come with their own nuances – social media does too. It gets complex because each social media platform has its own nuance, beyond overall social media nuances and that all-important difference, of social media being a 2-way communication medium unlike any other media referred ot earlier.
I’d perhaps get around to doing an update to this series at the end of 2014, instead of waiting for 2 more years!