Extreme Makeover: Getting unsexy or difficult brands onto social media

Social media as a marketing platform is what most marketers are talking about these days. Helped by mass worldwide adoption, as well as wilting marketing budgets due to the recent global economic meltdown, every chief marketing officer has been under pressure to ‘get on Facebook’.

As the dust settles, companies have burnt their fingers in their forays onto social media platforms, many because they operate in industries that don’t lend themselves to the free visible flow of customer interaction. Some have suggested that these brands should give social media a skip, but there are examples that have lit a path to success.

I’ve been consistently amazed at the haphazard rush that many local corporate brands have taken to get involved in social media, without a true understanding of their product and customer environment. Many of these have been in the more demure financial services industry, which has a predominantly higher level of ‘grudge purchase’ products.

These brands, especially those like short-term insurance and medical schemes, offer products that are usually complex, and that customers choose because they feel they have to have them as a defensive purchase, rather than buy them for more positive reasons. However, there are plenty of other brands that fall into the ‘simply unsexy’ category, which have had trouble ‘glamming’ themselves up for social media.

For these brands, social media is a difficult prospect. Firstly, and most obviously, customers don’t necessarily want to have a relationship or interact with a brand that they’re not entirely happy about buying in the first place.

Secondly, these brands often offer complex products that customers don’t understand, and there are proportionately more customer complaints than in other industries, merely because these customers don’t understand what they’ve bought. Ultimately though, this is a scary prospect for corporate Boards, where any service weaknesses are aired very much in the public domain.

Very often, these brands end up trying to use social media purely as a customer service channel, which can open up a deluge of customer complaints, which more often than not gets ignored altogether or negatively affects the brand. There are those that have persevered and succeeded though, and one of the most successful social media campaigns in the UK offers some insights into creating social media experiences in these industries.

Compare the Market is a short-term insurance price-comparison site that was launched in 2006.

They approached VCCP London to drive more users to the site and to increase customer acquisition to what is a rather dreary product. VCCP’s response was to build an integrated campaign around a spoof ‘Compare the Meerkat’ website headed up by an eccentric meerkat character by the name of Aleksander Orlov.

The campaign was based around Orlov’s irritation at people coming to his site, ‘Compare the Meerkat’ in error, rather than the ‘Compare the Market’ website. The campaign stretched over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even included ‘meerchats’ with luminaries such as David Hasselhof.

The end result? Currently there are over 700 000 Facebook fans and 38 000 Twitter followers, all of which are people that have elected to be part of this brand in a highly unfashionable brand category. Now that’s a customer community. Whilst Compare the Market is not making sales conversion public, they have had an 86% increase is comparison visits to the website in 2009.

Compare the Market is a brand which, together with VCCP, understood its customer adoption process and understood the limitations and opportunities of social media for its brand. Their social media strategy was built on a clear view of how the brand interacted with customers, and why customers bought their product.

The first consideration is key for brands in financial services. Many brands in this space do not own the distribution channel, and as a result do not control the customer relationship. This takes them one step away in terms of owning service elements, but also – in most cases – distances them from the customer’s loyalty.

So what are the lessons here for brands in non-customer-facing, grudge purchase or just downright unsexy product categories?

1. Be impeccably clear on your goals

Simply building awareness is rarely an answer, because that awareness can be reflected and interpreted negatively by users. Brands here need to be very clear on what social media should achieve for them, from a marketing and business perspective.

2. Understand your brand-to-customer relationship and adoption process

Brands in these spaces need to pay much closer attention to understanding the type of relationships that they have with customers, and what type of interaction their customers want with them. This will determine whether you can build the social media campaign around your actual product elements, or whether you need to try something a little more leftfield and linking it back to the brand, as was the case with the ‘Compare the Meerkat’ campaign.

3. Listen first

This goes for all brands entering social media, but especially for those in tougher product categories. You must listen first to how customers talk about and interact with your brand, and those of your competitors. Gaining insight here is critical in designing social media strategies to avoid common pitfalls.

4. Be different, be brave

The worst approach for these types of brands is to replicate what you’re doing in other marketing channels onto social media. Doing that is just asking for trouble, Stick to your brand disciplines, but try something different. Just ask Aleksander Orlov.

5. Make it fun or provide utility

In a social media environment, your success is reliant on users finding value in your content, either because its fun or because it provides utility for the user. Grudge purchase brands in particular have to really work hard here, to ensure that social media platforms (especially Facebook, Twitter and niche industry social media platforms) don’t end up as mere customer complaint spaces.

Popping your corporate website copy onto a Facebook fan page just isn’t going to do it. Remember, if users don’t want to tell someone about your content or interact with it, it’s dead in the water.

6. Light lots of small fires

This is the one area where it’s considered ok to treat social media more tactically than strategically. These unsexy brands have to constantly — and I do mean constantly — be entertaining or providing value to community members, to maintain interest and interaction levels for the long term.

Introducing new concepts, competitions, characters, applications and campaigns on various different platforms (YouTube, MXit, blogging, Twitter, Ning, Flickr, offline stunts, Facebook, etc) will keep content fresh and develop real interaction with customers.

7. Respond to users quickly, preferably in real time

For brands in the ‘grudge purchase’ space that we’ve been using as examples, it’s natural that you will get some brand-related customer complaints fielded through your social media channels.

Ensure that the company is internally prepared to deliver on customer interaction promises through social media and ensure that you publicly respond to customer complaints quickly and efficiently. If a customer is turning into a brand terrorist on your social media platforms, don’t be afraid to take the conversation offline by requesting a move to personal contact.

8. Be patient

Social media is not about instant results and short-term goals. You’re creating content to draw in a community who will share and interact virally. It’s about organic growth and, to borrow an expression from financial services, ‘time in the market’.

9. Support your social media channels with an integrated approach

Brands in these tougher product categories need to work harder than others to kick-start and support social media campaigns. Compare the Market kick-started their campaigns with TV, but this can also be paired with any other above-the-line media, and importantly, public relations. As usual e-marketing support in the form of media buys or pay-per-click should always be used to a support tool.

There is no doubt that these types of brands face a tougher entry into social media, but that certainly doesn’t preclude their involvement.

As always, it’s about understanding the customer base, deciding on the brand’s tactical approach, developing the right customer-valued content and allowing the customers to take it on.



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