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Social Media Helps Build Strong Brands

March 12, 2012

By Betsy Sigman

New technologies on the Web are changing how forward-thinking companies are approaching branding. Over the last few years, social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others have provided direct access to reach customers.

Social media services connect companies to consumers. Facebook allows companies to communicate with close to a billion people (half of whom log on during any given day), and that number is rapidly growing. Furthermore, these potential customers can be found on Facebook pages published in 70 different languages, allowing global penetration of brand awareness. Connecting to these individuals allows companies to gather consumer information that ranges from the age of the individual and his or her current location to favorite hobbies and social networks.

Twitter has more than 200 million registered users, and Google+ has more than 90 million members and is still defining its role in social media. Recognizing the impact and importance of social media and branding, Google+ released its brand pages in November 2011. All these social media outlets provide opportunities for companies to strengthen their brands.

Traditionally, the term “brand” referred to the way in which a company or organization differentiates itself from its competition. In the era of the Internet and social media, branding occurs in new and interesting ways—even personal branding.

How can a person, an organization or a company use the new tools offered by the Internet to create or strengthen a brand? Consider the following six steps for a successful social media setup:

1. Identify interested customers to encourage brand loyalty.

Understanding support on the Internet requires knowledge of a new vocabulary, specifically one that clarifies the ways in which a social media site visitor can indicate favorability. A few terms to know:

· Likes: A “Like” on Facebook means an individual supports a particular topic. While the value and profit-making potential of Likes remain undefined, many digital communications experts believe that the more people positively engage with the brand, the more significant the brand’s products and/or services will become. In the end, this often translates into a sales increase.

­· +1: Google+’s version of the Like is a +1. Google+ defines +1 as “your stamp of approval.”

­· Retweet: On Twitter, a follower will retweet to indicate that a particular tweet or piece of information is worthy of attention. Companies follow retweets to identify product and service strengths and weaknesses, as well as to gain knowledge about their customers.

· Fan pages: Companies use fan pages to promote themselves. While there is no direct translation of fans to finances, fan pages do provide channels for companies to promote content, advertisements and promotions to interested consumers quickly and inexpensively. Presumably, people who have indicated their support on a fan page will be more likely to use a promotion or coupon from the company they support.

2. Build a community to communicate with customers and improve service.

Social media services inform customers of news and information regarding company initiatives and products. In Facebook’s words, “Build a community around your company.” From receiving instant feedback on proposed changes and products to conducting market research on consumer preferences, social media provide a channel for timely responses, which conveys integrity and loyalty.

Use social media for customer service to help get your customers’ questions answered quickly and automatically. For example, when a person tweets about a concern, a company can have prepared answers sent out automatically by a computer program called an intelligent agent, which recognizes word phrases that indicate a particular concern. This can create a good customer relationship.

3. Create viral videosand engage with consumers to promote new products and brands.

One of the best ways to promote a brand is to create a promotional video. Burger King was one of the first companies to use viral videos in 2005 to promote its TenderCrisp chicken sandwich. The company created a video of a man directing a large chicken to act out his orders and demands.

The message was that this sandwich would provide chicken according to a customer’s specific liking. The viral video inspired a Website at which consumers could control a chicken’s movement. The site became so popular that Burger King improved it, enabling the chicken to respond to more than 300 commands.

In another case, Ford recently discovered that its orange puppet “Doug” and his viral videos helped market the company’s Focus car. Ford didn’t skimp on the production of its Doug videos and hired writers from The Simpsons and The Office to produce the clips. Once the videos went viral, the amount of attention the clips received negated the production costs, and the overall campaign was less expensive than TV advertisements.

4. Distribute promotions through social media channels.

Web discounts and promotions, many of which are accessible through mobile phones, can be used to lead organizations’ promotional efforts. Social media support distribution of deals and coupons. Furthermore, location services enable social media Websites like Foursquare to target promotions to people based on their proximity to restaurants, bars, stores and services.

5. Use social media for issues management.

Companies need to monitor social media and the blogosphere. This takes time and money — one reason it is so important to have the C-suite understand and support social media efforts. Ideally, a company should have a director of social media with strong staff support. Make certain that information is distributed to influential, reliable opinion leaders who will accurately communicate pertinent information about your products and services.

Use Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to quell false rumors, take responsibility for mistakes and indicate how the company will solve issues. Be proactive by answering questions and addressing issues that could lead to negative perceptions. Social media opens channels for honest communication between customers and companies. What customers say must be followed, tabulated and analyzed.

Bank of America recently grappled with an overwhelmingly negative reaction to its proposal to charge customers a $5-per-month debit card fee. After 750,000 people signed an online petition, the bank was forced to listen and removed the fee. Responding to earlier frustrations and engaging with the online community might have prevented this public relations fiasco.

6. Create customized appeals.

Develop customized appeals to people based on information gathered from commentary and feedback via social media. On Facebook, for example, a soft-drinks company can target hikers with ads showing trekkers enjoying beverages at the end of a long trip. To sports fans, run ads that show people playing or enjoying watching sports, with branded drinks beside them. Or exhibit ads to hobbyists that picture them enjoying a soda around a table of scrapbookers, quilters, coin collectors or other hobby groups.

Such appeals are easy and fairly inexpensive to create, and you can ensure they are seen by the people to whom they will appeal the most. In this world of instant analytics, organizations creating advertisements on social media get immediate feedback on how well ads are received by targeted audiences.

Social media usage is growing dramatically and has drastically changed branding. Companies must learn to follow and understand digital technology trends to meet the needs of their consumers and tailor their branding strategies effectively. By following these six steps, companies can rest assured that their brand and reputation will stay in a positive light in the public eye.


Betsy Sigman, distinguished teaching professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, is an expert in social media and information systems and in how companies use technology. She has worked with the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Social Science Data Center and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and is a member of Women in Technology International.

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