‘Because not everything is better in front of a crowd’

Colmar Brunton has just released some survey results that show 60 percent of New Zealanders follow a brand on social media and more than two thirds think a social media presence adds to the brand’s appeal. But what those consumers say when they’re talking to those brands is another, very different question. So we thought we’d republish a column by The Research Agency’s Andrew Lewis that ran in the last issue of NZ Marketing and detailed the interesting results of a survey on how people interact with brands on social media. 

Recently we ran an experiment in the telecommunications category to understand more about how people use social media around brands. The aim was to understand what people talk about when they talk about brands in a social media space, and why they choose to talk about these brands when they do.

It’s a big question, right? Why would someone bother to waste some of their precious 140 characters tweeting about Telecom when they could talk about Jaime Ridge instead? What motivates someone to chat about 2degrees at their ‘digital BBQ’ instead of something fascinating, like Police Ten 7? The results of our experiment were both fascinating and disturbing from a brand perspective, and highlighted some of the more undesirable outcomes of sending your brand out to ‘chat’ with the public. And these outcomes deserve greater consideration when we look at how we construct social media strategies.

But before we hit the ‘interesting-but-bad’ part of brand-based social media, let’s start with the boring truth. The vast majority of what’s Tweeted, blogged and posted—68 percent of everything we captured—was really very ‘neutral’. Not positive, not negative, not opinionated in any way, just re-Tweets from traditional media, postings from companies about plans, products and promotions, and the mindless chatter on a brand’s Facebook wall. It was just stuff. And probably not stuff that’s going to be significantly impacting most peoples’ brand perceptions one way or the other.

So lesson one for social media should probably be that most of what’s going on online is just noise. Much like eavesdropping on any conversation in the physical world, most of what we are going to hear isn’t going to make our ears burn or our palms sweaty. And, more interestingly, most of this noise seems to be generated by the desire to get free stuff from brands.

An analysis of Facebook postings on official brand pages shows most people milling around trying to win prizes for ‘liking’ Telecom, or responding to a post. And beyond Facebook, Tweets are often hashtagged for a brand when people want something from them.

All in all, the experiment showed our approaches to social media engagement have created quite mercenary relationships with brands. And it raises real questions as to what this sort of relationship is actually doing to improve emotional connections with a brand. Do they like us? Or are they here for the Facebook lolly scramble?

By far the most interesting part of social media, however, is when we get into the third of activity that is about opinion. When people start talking about their opinion of telco brands in social media, inevitably the conversation turns negative. More than 70 percent of the ‘opinionated’ conversation, across all the leading brands in the market, is unhappy, negative chatter.

This is probably where lesson two comes in. What motivates people to offer an opinion on a brand in social media is largely the opportunity to vent about negative experiences, or circulate negative gossip. It’s the old adage that an unhappy customer will tell ten people about their experience, while a happy one might tell one. Only they are telling everybody who happens to be listening via social media.

That’s not great for a brand, but, interestingly, a third of all this negative chatter is happening on brands’ own Facebook pages, with people using the wall to express anger or disappointment at service, product or staff, like a very public 0800 complaint line.

And this is where the biggest unintended problem occurs for brands looking to engage in a social media space. We create a platform to let people engage with us directly, but by far the most motivating reasons for engaging come from a desire to complain about something, to see some kind of problem get sorted out. And from a brand perspective, this kind of public forum where we’ve invited a whole lot of more ‘neutral’ people to gather to win free stuff, is totally the wrong environment for dealing with service recovery. In many ways, what we are creating is more negative brand experiences for people.

All of which raises some pretty interesting questions for how we action a social media strategy. If engaging with a brand in new media really means service recovery for most people, are there better, less ‘social’ platforms we could operate?

And should we even be creating things like Facebook pages for our brands? Or are these just going to act as lightning rods for dissatisfied people who’ve never had real access to us before? You wouldn’t invite all your friends to watch you get ridiculed by a bunch of strangers (X-Factor contestants aside), so why would you want to do that to your brand?

Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this, is that social media strategy needs to recognise why people will want to engage with your brand, and build appropriate platforms for conversations that reflect this. Both social and anti-social, because not everything is better in front of a crowd.

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