New media and brands: a reality check

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This article of mine was published in Brand Wagon – a weekly supplement from The Financial Express.

Nowadays, both ‘new media evangelists’ and ‘new media naysayers’ are getting their share of attention in the marketing & communications landscape. The former champion Digital & Social Media as the future of marketing communications and even go the extent of saying that advertising as we know it is dead. The latter dismisses new media as a fad or treat it as an also-ran in the marketing mix. The truth, as its wont, perhaps lies somewhere in between.

The argument for Digital Media goes something like this: (a) Traditional form of advertising is dead (b) Consumers actively seek to ‘engage’ with brands in the online medium (c) conversations in Social Media are increasingly about brands and brands can influence purchase behaviour through such conversations. There is no denying that the internet and other forms of new media have greatly influenced consumers. It has changed the way they seek information, consume media, share content, buy products & services and influence a community.

According to the Nielsen Social Media Report Q3 2011: (a) Social media has grown rapidly – today nearly 4 in 5 active Internet users visit social networks and blogs (b) Close to 40% of social media users access social media content from their mobile phone (c) 53% of active adult social networkers follow a brand, while 32% follow a celebrity (d) Across a snapshot of 10 major global markets, social networks and blogs reach over three-quarters of active Internet users. Even without such reports we can gauge the power of Facebook, video sharing sites and new technology all around us. Brands have jumped into the fray hoping to be a part of this new landscape. The result: a one-size fits all approach. Or worse, a ‘tick the box’ approach to new media.

The manifestation of this is in the belief that ‘engagement’ is everything and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and video sharing brands is a must for a brand. On the face of it, consumers (at least in India) seem to enthusiastically participate in Facebook brand pages. The number of ‘Likes’ and comments on pretty innocuous posts on mundane, everyday brands are surprising to say the least. But such interactions do not provide the complete picture. I read somewhere that while Eminem had over 41 million fans and Lady Gaga over 39 million fans, the average number of posts per fan for Eminem’s fan page was 1.17 and for Lady Gaga it was 1.82. There are countless Twitter feeds, blogs, microsites and YouTube pages which are bereft of any conversation & engagement – what Tom Fishburne called ‘Social Media ghost towns’.

So the trouble is there is no clear of measure of ‘engagement’ in new media. Is clicking the ‘Like’ button on Facebook a real measure of engagement? It could be. But then we have users ‘liking’ even an ‘I am sad because my pet kitten passed away’ status update. What about all the other myriad activities that a consumer does on the internet & new-fangled devices?  There is tweeting, +1-ing, sharing an article, cursing a brand’s service, praising a brand, recommending or defending a brand, downloading an app…all of these could be ‘measures’ of engagement. A brand might play a role in any, some or all of these depending on the category, the brand’s stature, the content and so on. Starting with a great product helps. A case in point – Apple. The brand did not have a Twitter presence until recently (they now provide updates on iTunes), did not rely on blogs to create conversations. All of the conversations and ‘evangelism’ was initiated by consumers on their own accord. But not all of us can deal with an Apple or a Google. As Mark Ritson, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Melbourne said: most brands don’t have the newsworthiness, broad appeal or dynamism to have any chance of making Twitter work for them. So parity driven categories, especially in FMCG have to rely on great content (be it in the form of a TVC or a useful app or an entertaining blog post) to create engagement.

Fact is, brand engagement through communication existed even before the Internet was invented. The old DraftFCB Ulka classic for Amul ‘Doodh, doodh..piyo glassful doodh’ was an eminently likeable commercial. The only way consumers could have reacted to it was to talk about it among friends, hum the jingle, feel good about the brand or better still go out and buy Amul. The fact that people can recall the jingle word for word and sing it out even after years is proof of the great ‘engagement’ with that communication. Today only the way you react to that kind of communication has changed – you could tweet about it, like it on YouTube, praise it through a blog post or share it on Facebook.

As the cliché goes, ‘content is king’ – be it an old fashioned TV spot or a multi-faceted new media campaign. That’s the reason behind the success of an Old Spice response campaign, a Blendtec YouTube campaign or the good old TV spot for John West that went viral on the net.

Howard Gossage, an advertising innovator and iconoclast during the ‘Mad Men’ era once said: “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them..sometimes it’s an ad.” In today’s context one could change that to: nobody consumes brand content. They consume what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad, sometimes it’s an App, and sometimes it’s a blog. Taking an extreme position either which way (over estimation or underestimation) of the power of new media calls for a reality check.

Grateful if you could share your thoughts on the article here.

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1 Comment

  1. Howard Gossage's statement could never be more true: "nobody reads ads. People read what interests them…sometimes it's an ad." Especially in the digital age with the nearly unlimited amount of content on social media sites, blogs, and video pages, consumers aren't persuaded easily to purchase a brand, let alone remember what it is. The researchers and artists who am I currently working with are also investigating the ways in which people react to advertisements in today's technology-driven society. Our most recent video post is an interview with advertising executive, Gary Jordan, who believes that a strong emotional connection needs to be formed with consumers in order to successfully sell a product ( ). Can new media provide such a relationship?

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