Despite emerging 20 years ago, many brands still struggle to harness the capabilities of social media. Melanie Mingas seeks the expert opinion on user generated content, buying fans and how online connections became a well-oiled selling machine.
It used to be the case that what happened online, stayed online. But as the online and offline lives of consumers merged, marketers has no choice but to consider their customers as “fans” and to begin promoting products via a series of sepia filtered images and hashtags, published to an audience it is likely may have never experienced that product first hand.
Suddenly it wasn’t just luxury that was aspirational. The hotel in an exotic country you one day hope to visit; the fun new games concept over the road that you’re rallying friends together to try; the new shoes that haven’t launched in this country yet; a new combination of your favourite, everyday foods, as prepared by a complete stranger with a social media footprint. People dared to dream and through social media, dream they did.
Now every brand is clamouring for a spot on the consumer’s bucket list and the multi-platform networks designed to connect us in the most innocuous, flippant, way have become a well-oiled selling machine.
But not every brand account can post a picture of eggs benedict and sit back while it goes viral for no apparent reason – and no number of KPIs from management can change that. So what’s the secret?
“Followers flock to brands which engage emotionally. Every day, customers face thousands of different pages and simply don’t have time to engage in all of them. You must provide them an experience that the others don’t,” says Ayse Abbas Carlson Rezidor digital marketing manager for the Middle East, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa.
“There isn’t a single brand today which does not exist on social. It has become a crucial tool for customer engagement and every day more resources are invested in social media as brands work towards the continued growth of their online fan base,” adds Abbas, who handles social strategies across Facebook, Instagram, twitter and Google+ as well as brand blogs for Radisson Blu and Park Inn and the group’s digital marketing.
Engagement: intangible, obscure and paradoxical in a world where attention spans have shrunk exponentially over the last decade is one element, but perception must also be considered.
“The trick to it is not to ‘market’ to people, but to involve yourself in their experience,” explains Alan Devereux, managing director of social media agency CaveChalk.
“If they take a picture of your food you click like, you share and you re-upload to other networks and tag the picture taker. If someone in a venue takes the time to talk to the staff and say thanks, the management – sometimes even the chef – comes and makes a big deal. They don’t drop a pamphlet on the table that says 10% off you next pizza, but on social that’s all that seems to happen,” he advises.
In his recent work, “netpreneur” John Thomas was tasked by a fine dining client to drive footfall for lunch service through social media. Using an activation campaign, hashtag and rewards incentives for sharing images, he was able to achieve a 40% increase in covers, directly attributable to Instagram, as well as new fans and followers.
He says: “KPIs should be set accordingly. They could be web conversions, lead generation, online purchase, website signups, enquiries, or sometimes merely social interactions like downloads, views or shares.
“If, for instance a client’s goal is awareness of the brand on social media, then the metrics we track and analyse are reach and exposure. If the goal is increasing engagement, then the metrics are usually retweets, comments, replies, shares, and likes. Lastly if the goals are more about website conversions and purchases, then we track URL shares, clicks, and downloads,” he continues.
Devereux, who before establishing CaveChalk worked in journalism and PR says that, while engagement KPIs can be formulated, how people react to a social campaign can sometimes be anybody’s guess. He observes: “Take #KSA for example, this hashtag on twitter is apparently viewed 96 million times a day. Meanwhile brands are trying to force people to use their own hashtags. People doing one thing; brands doing another.”
To UGC or not UGC?
As the saying goes: Facebook is the largest content platform without providing its own content, YouTube is the most used video streaming service, without producing video. It seems that brands too can boost their popularity through content originating from others.
Yet famously, many chefs have banned guests from picturing their food for social media, as much for the reputation management of the restaurant as the comfort of other diners.
Where the story originated from is hard to decipher but reports came from the US, UK and France of unhappy chefs wanting to protect their most treasured dishes from low quality photography. But the technarati press had already declared the dawn of a new genre in amateur photography and as of June this year Instagram had 178 million photos tagged #food, as counted by Wired magazine.
However the jury is out on “eat and tweet” as a means of engagement.
Ravneet Arora, who works in content and analytics for Iconsulthotels, comments: “UGC is very powerful and has a much bigger impact on a person’s decision making than official updates, adverts, or write-ups on other websites or in magazines.
“It isn’t feasible to regulate the trend and doing so is likely to backfire. Besides, why would you want to curb it? Every picture shared is a free advertisement for your restaurant, so rather than restrict it, you should actually encourage it,” she adds.
But as Arora explains there are many ways both the restauranteur and the diner could find a middle ground. Advising on the creation of a “social hotspot” in the venue, or the training of bar and wait staff to encourage guests to take pictures is both genuine and helpful – and far less invasive than a venue asking its patrons if it can picture their private moments for public social media accounts.
At the end of the day, unless your guest is a prominent blogger or food personality the social impact of a grainy food picture is likely to be minimal, but their complaints when their freedom to take that picture is restricted, have the power to go viral.
“Food pictures are very popular on many social networks and we’ve seen many cases where customers have actually walked into one of our clients’ outlets just because they’ve seen a picture they liked online,” Arora adds.
Thomas agrees: “At a time when brands all over the world are vying for content why would any hotel or chef want to ban their diners from taking or uploading food pictures? I think, on the contrary, these chefs must actually encourage diners to click more and share their experiences online with their network.”
On occasion however, the chef or restaurateur may be happy for patrons to get snap happy, but fellow diners are not; as with everything there is a time and a place and the internet isn’t always it.
The pied piper
The existence of a page is one thing, but an embarrassingly low number of followers can drastically undermine a brand’s reputation. Being liked has never been more important.
For new outlets and pages this is particularly difficult. Promotion of handles and hashtags has become so mainstream many consumers don’t even register them when they see the famous @ and # on a menu or advert.
Adding to the mix, engagement metrics are a science in themselves but there are ways to ensure you’re brand is not banished to an empty table, without amassing an audience of bucket-list writers.
Social can easily be summarised as attractive visuals, carefully chosen witty words, which are reflective of the brand and engagement goals, and an army of offline ambassadors to convert guests into likes and vice versa.
Championing the targeted method, Arora asks: “What’s the point of having a lot of followers if most of them will never visit your outlet(s)?
“Ours’ is a people industry, so we work closely with the staff in our clients’ properties and outlets to ensure social media is integrated into the everyday operational reality of their businesses. That is, staff encourage guests and visitors to connect and share, or to use social media channels for feedback,” she adds, revealing that clients of Iconsulthotels enjoy the combination of organic engagement, paid advertising to targeted audience segments, and cross-promotion of social media accounts online and offline.
Strong results were recorded in a recent campaign using Facebook pixels, building custom audiences, and re-targeting website visitors and email subscribers. The bottom line isn’t always about money, but reflecting the personality of the establishment and the behaviour of the target audience. Both of which feed into the overall number of likes and followers.
For Thomas, who launched the social media presence of Italian Jazz singer Cecilia Herrera, Emmy-nominated Filmmaker Beno Saradzic, and Emirati Author Khaled Mohammed Al Maskari, it’s something he first successfully achieved through his personal account, organically growing his following from 200 family and friends to 54,000 “fans” around the world.
“I realise now that it was all about the quality of content on the page and the level of engagement I maintained with my community all the time. Keeping the content fresh, interesting and share worthy, posting regularly, sharing new knowledge, ideas and information, accepting and acknowledging the community’s views, giving them a voice, are just a few aspects that helped me build an engaged community and a strong personal brand online.”
How strong such an approach will remain as the concept of paid followers gain pace, is anybody’s guess. With social now taking worrying strides towards an all-paid content model, the idea of organic shares, likes and even the concept of “viral” itself faces a drastic threat.
Organic is about brands earning their way onto news feeds, while paid will push the “10% discount pizza” model Deveraux warns of. In order to retain the last social elements of social media and conquer the idea of emotional engagement, brands must merge their online and offline worlds for their own sake and for the sake of everybody else who holds a social media account.
As Deveraux concludes: “Fans should be guests. A fan that is not, or has never been a guest, is as useful to the venue as my like of the Lamborghini page is to Lamborghini.”
The to do and do nots of social media
Alan Devereux, managing director of social media agency CaveChalk. “Don’t look at social media as a marketing channel, it is best suited to customer service and business development. They choose to follow, they choose to interact, they choose to block. They choose to spend money with you. Reward them with more than a picture of as nice looking pizza.”
John Thomas, netpreneur and advisor “Social media is all about being social. It is about people following things they love to hear about, things they are passionate about and things that make them happy. So focus your attention on making your brand MORE social and worry less about doing Social Media. Let every single post, message or interaction from the brand on the social space be based on this understanding.
Ayse Abbas Carlson Rezidor digital marketing manager for the Middle East, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa “Publish content to encourage users to share and talk about you. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and see the relevancy and the uniqueness of your content. If it does not inspire you to read, probably it will not for others as well. Also, do not link your social media channels for automated posts. Remember each platform is unique and has a different purpose and character.
Ravneet Arora, content and analytics, Iconsulthotels “Don’t do social just for the sake of it. Every post, update, or advertising campaign, has to have a reason and focus. Know why you’re doing something. Is it to build loyalty? Drive footfall? Increase awareness? You need to understand the unique personality of your outlet(s) or brand and reflect it in your social media goals. Without goals, your activities won’t be effective, you won’t know how to measure ROI, and you won’t be able to turn lookers into bookers.”