Originally published in Brand Equity, The Economic Times, July 20, 2016.
Back in 2008, during the early days of social media—Twitter was just 2 years old and Facebook had opened its membership to anyone only in 2006—I recall suggesting to a marketing head of the Indian arm of an MNC that he should start blogging. He told me, “But Karthik, who would read my blog? I don’t think that’s a worthwhile use of my time!”
I remember taking this response to my heart because it says so much more than what it simply means. It meant he hasn’t thought about building an audience, only that he wanted a ready audience for his views. It also meant he wasn’t willing to invest time in finding an audience for himself and his views beyond his offline circle of acquaintances. Finally, it also meant that he was perhaps perturbed by what people—complete strangers online—would say about his views, without caring for his hi-funda designation.
That largely sums up what brands go through, when they plan on either going social or scaling up their social media activities. These days, ‘social’ is an extension of what brands already do using media in general – yet another channel to talk about themselves. And, use one or more social media channels to pull an ‘Oreo’.
Awkwardly enough, the real social relevance happens far beyond the brand’s—or its agency’s—office. And it is not anything new either – people have always spoken about brands, their products, advertising, communication, stand on select topics, price, availability etc. amongst themselves, for many years. Now, they also speak online and the word travels much faster amongst themselves.
And since brands have always wanted to be talk-worthy, besides being just buy-worthy (because the former helps in recall, which in turns aids in the latter) social media was seen as a natural extension in talk-worthy efforts. But what most brands forget is that social media is perhaps the first ever massively scaled up communication channel that is truly democratic. Put in a more alarmist way (for brands), social media is the first ever communication channel that allows people to talk back to brands, while the whole world watches.
This changes everything, quite literally. Because, now brands have to communicate by being fully aware of how people may react, and not just whether they will buy. To know how people may react, brands need to be amongst people, listening to them, learning from them, talking to them. And that makes brands not just part of the media spectrum, but also a media vehicle, by themselves.
Some brands have learnt this already and are doing an excellent job of honing their newly-realised media status. Like Redbull, for instance. But most brands are merely scratching the surface, and exploiting only the broadcast nature of social media, without realising that while they are broadcasting, people are talking amongst themselves about the broadcast. And even though brands can listen to that chatter, they don’t do anything about it.
That brings me to organizational silos that are supposedly more suited to handle this chatter, or to orchestrate the chatter in a way it benefits brands. Marketing, PR, Corporate Communications, Chairman’s Office (yes, I’ve heard that!), HR… many organizations have tried multiple methods, but it usually ends up as, ‘marketing will pay and push stuff on our Facebook page’, ‘PR team will post a few press releases on our Twitter handle’, ‘HR will run an employee focused campaign on Instagram’ and eventually, after all these have happened for a reasonable period of time, ‘Chairman’s office wants to build a social command center’.
Silos aren’t going away and awkwardly enough, perhaps only another silo can bring some sanity to this madness. Imagine – if the organization has to respond to a legal notice, who would they go to? If they have to talk to, or react to a media report, who would they go to? Yes, a Chief Social Officer is what I had in mind, to ensure that a brand is socially relevant. So, anything that goes on any social channel owned by the brand, on behalf of the brand – paid or organic, reactive or proactive – goes through the Chief Social Officer’s team. The reason why it is better served as a separate team that reports to the CEO or the COO (and not marketing or PR) is that the use of social is not limited to specific, time-bound goals. Those goals are perfectly valid, but not at the cost of affecting the organization’s or brand’s overall, on-going reputation.
This also means the role (and the team) understand the space and people who talk in the space, in the digital spectrum the company operates in. So, if the company is a 5-star hotel chain, while the PR team is expected to know food-related journalists, the Chief Social Officer’s team is expected to know food bloggers, recipe bloggers (there’s a difference, trust me!), social handles and opinions of people in the industry bodies that track hotels besides customers who talk more often about hotels online. Why? Because, PR is best at operating in a controlled environment of media-organization hierarchies, while social, with its many-to-many communication spectrum is a vastly different animal.
That’s the crux of the Chief Social Officer (and her team’s) role. She is that person who needs to confidently walk up to the middle of road and talk to complete strangers who have an opinion about her brand. While she is talking, she is loud enough that others hear and add their point of view – and she has to address them too. While she is doing that, a HR person from her organization walks to the road starts telling strangers about how their workplace policies are fantastic. And a marketing person walks into the same road and asks anyone who cares to buy their services because they are great! Since they don’t wait to see the reaction from people beyond clicking a Like button, the Chief Social Officer and her team need to reign in her colleagues and ensure that they say things in a manner that is appropriate for the brand’s personality.
Seems like a tough ask, building another silo. But then, being socially relevant is a tough job because we are all – brands, and us people – sitting with megaphones in our hands.