James Russell, Experian: Time to go digital by default

Social media do not threaten established brands and news channels - they enhance them.

James Russell, Experian: Time to go digital by default
James Russell, Experian: Time to go digital by default

The Government's decision to appoint Mary Portas to head up the review of our high streets was a smart one, and it generated considerable comment and debate. What I found intriguing was the number of experts that put the blame for the decline of our high streets firmly at the door of the internet.

Our own analysis tells us that the vast majority of people still want to shop in stores. The difference is that today they will walk through the doors knowing what they'll find, having used the internet to research what's on offer. It is a sign of the times that one in ten consumers will now do this research in the store using their smartphone.

If a digital approach can help the most traditional of British retail institutions, a digital mindset is an absolute minimum in our industry, which is built on communicators using those channels to best effect for the brands and reputations we must enhance.

Earlier in the year I chaired an event about the ways in which social media can be used internationally for brands. What struck me most was that the audience instinctively 'got' social and digital in its various flavours. It was not because they had been on a training course and got a certificate, it was simply part of their lives. As a client, I want all of the agencies that advise us to understand digital, in the same way we are encouraging this across our in-house communications team. Digital, with all its nuances, is still just another communications channel and it is the message that matters most.

How has digital become part of the communications fabric at Experian?

Where it works best, we have dispensed with traditional news channels and reach out directly to influential online communities. Research director Robin Goad's blog about the latest analysis from Experian Hitwise, our internet search intelligence company, is a great example. Latest trends are released only on the blog, getting great traction across the media without the graft of a traditional sell-in.

In May, one in every 200 UK internet visits went to Twitter (source: Experian Hitwise), and we are using well-crafted tweets to give campaigns more oxygen. Our marketing heads are empowered to tweet and retweet - and it is a great sales tool. We use Twitter to respond quickly to journalist requests and we are looking at new ways to use it to tell our story.

It is also critical to think beyond media relations. We are starting to use sites such as LinkedIn to promote campaigns and thought-leadership across key communities to stimulate debate and endorsement. Done right, campaigns become more of a pull than a push, because people have an appetite to engage and find out more.

Brand sentiment and reputation is increasingly being shaped on social networks - not surprising when one in ten visits to retailers online comes direct from social networks (source: Experian Hitwise). Yet, many of us charged with enhancing reputation face a blind spot because conventional digital monitoring doesn't cover these communities. Our acquisition of Techlightenment earlier this year means we can offer our clients analytical tools to help them track perceptions and sentiment on social networks and across the internet. This kind of insight is invaluable to a communications professional, enabling brands to tailor how and when they communicate.

The message from one of our team at the recent BBC conference on the role of social media in journalism was that social media are your friends. They don't cannibalise news, but drive more traffic to news sites.

The same principle applies to those of us who make the news.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

It's about being built on insights about your target audience to achieve maximum relevance. You must develop a relationship with the audience and reward them for their support. Content must be entertaining and become a part of the conversation.

How can a corporate website become a media channel?

Whether it's the company newsroom or the main site, it's critical that the content is engaging. If the content isn't strong enough, it really won't make any difference whether it's multi-channel or not. Content always comes first, quickly followed by a great channel strategy.

James Russell is PR director at Experian

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