The time for dabbling is over. When social media took off initially, there was a flurry of experimentation as clients and agencies dipped their toes into the fast-moving digital waters. Often they created a presence on Facebook and Twitter because they felt they should be seen to be there, without developing a compelling business rationale or pinning down a clear set of objectives and performance metrics.
Thankfully, that kind of woolly thinking has had its day. More than ever now clients need to see a return on investment. There is increasing use of Facebook as a commercial channel, especially by FMCG marketeers. The term 'social commerce' is gaining traction as brands seek to build equity and sell product by moving into online communities where people connect with one another.
The opportunity for PR to be able to demonstrate its effects on the bottom line is the holy grail. Yet while we pursue this goal, our position is under threat due to a blurring of traditional dividing lines. A land grab is occurring, with agencies from different disciplines trying to secure a piece of the digital action.
Yet the PR industry is best-equipped to provide counsel. We're experts in conversation, reacting quickly to changes and refining messages to appeal to different audiences. Our Shine 1 survey last year found that 90 per cent of marketing directors believed that PR agencies were best placed to lead social media. But other disciplines will prosper, even if they don't have our conversational skills, because they are adept at talking the talk about ROI, effectiveness and making a direct correlation with sales.
Though matters of perception and reputation remain important, the PR industry needs to focus far more on the grittier side of commercial reality. Online (and elsewhere) it is ideas that drive sales and meet other important business objectives that win the day.
Social media activity has to be developed against KPIs that make a difference to brands. It's insufficient for PR to trumpet its outputs - demonstrating outcomes is what cuts the mustard.
A question we should always ask is: are we delivering what is required commercially?
It's a question close to our hearts at Shine. This summer, we overhauled our approach to measuring the campaigns we create and execute for our clients. Our new system, ERIC (Evaluating Results in Integrated Campaigns), has been described as a 'big and bold step' by comms measurement body AMEC. It moves us away from flawed, outdated metrics like Advertising Value Equivalents to those that focus on outcomes - assessing what difference our work makes to the behaviour or opinions of clients' audiences. Online, where so much can be measured, there's no excuse for not doing so properly.
Yet as the interview with Amanda Brown of First Direct shows, even digitally switched-on brands aren't getting the most out of their actions through effective evaluation. The bank's activity clearly works for it at the moment, but in what way? It seems more experimental than grounded in commercial reality. For a brand like First Direct, which invests significantly in online activity, I'd advise setting specific KPIs upfront that will allow it to methodically evaluate the effectiveness of its actions.
The industry must get to grips with this issue and act to secure PR's place at the top table by demonstrating how what we do contributes to our clients' bottom line. The opportunity exists for PROs to be at the head of the table; it's up to us to step up and grab it.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Do you see a distinction between your personal and professional use of social media?
LinkedIn is professional life, Facebook is personal and Twitter depends on what you want to get out of it.
How would you deal with a Twitter account spoofing one of your clients?
An immediate response is needed. Should material be libellous and damaging to the brand then legal action might be required.
Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail - having a brilliant time searching for the grail.
From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011