Master Class: How do you avoid turning off consumers in promoting brands via digital channels?

Have you ever gotten stuck talking to someone at a party who is an absolute bore?


Leyl Master Black
MD, SparkPR

Eui Chung
Divisional VP and GM, social commerce, Sears Holdings

Aaron Magness
Senior director, brand marketing and business development,

Scott Monty
Head of social media, Ford Motor Company

Michael Young
SVP, Access Communications


Leyl Master Black, MD, SparkPR

Have you ever gotten stuck talking to someone at a party who is an absolute bore? Or walked into a store and gotten corralled by an overly aggressive salesperson? Or maybe you have changed the channel at a particularly annoying commercial?

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are social places where people share things they find funny, interesting, or useful with their friends, so the fastest way to turn them off is to sell, bore, or annoy them. The trick to keeping fans around is to provide them with relevant, entertaining content that they will want to engage with and share with their friends. It's a simple exchange: give people something they value and you'll get their attention in return.

Many companies have found success by becoming a go-to resource for information and tips and subtly integrating their brand or promotion into engaging content. For example, a food brand could post a series of cooking videos rather than simply pro-moting products in their feed. Others tap into shared experiences to motivate parti-cipation, such as crowdsourcing Mother's Day gift recommendations. Some even tie promotions to an entertaining poll or quiz, providing fans with a special offer before revealing the results. And, of course, there's no shortage of examples of companies engaging fans with contests, coupons, and just-for-fun campaigns.

Frequency is another factor to consider. While there's no hard-and-fast rule for how many posts per day are acceptable, a good approach is to look at what similar companies with large, fast-growing fan bases are doing and mirror their post frequency. And space out your posts throughout the day. Nothing is more likely to generate an "un-follow" than an automated burst of dozens of pre-written posts or tweets.

Eui Chung, divisional VP and GM, social commerce, Sears Holdings

Social media is a growing trend today among customers looking to connect with their friends and favorite brands and stay updated on deals and news. Sears Holdings wants to be everywhere our customers are, so we make sure we have a strong presence in key social channels and work to ensure we are actively engaging with customers beyond sharing promotions.

Our objectives with social media are to connect, listen, and engage with our customers. From Facebook to Twitter to our MySears online community, each social channel gives us the unique opportunity to address customer feedback on a faster, more personal level than ever before. With MySears, customers can start dis- cussions with other shoppers and Sears associates to share shopping tips, product reviews, hot deals, and more. Several of our greatest ideas originate from the thoughts customers have shared with us on the MySears community.

It's also important to have transparency and authenticity when engaging social channels. We're not afraid to show we're real people behind our social profiles. For example, we thank our fans for their comments and opinions, and we make an effort to include the name of the Sears associate who is actually responding to customers.

Additionally, we use our social channels to connect and support our customers and welcome all comments.

For instance, this past holiday season, we asked our Facebook fans for their opinions on holiday sales in October. Customers joined the conversation and shared their thoughts on why they appreciated holiday deals early while others explained why they think we should have promoted deals later. It was a true example of how Sears effectively uses social media.

Aaron Magness, senior director, brand marketing and business development,

For the most part, you don't have to worry about turning off consumers if you're having truly engaging and meaningful interactions. The problem many brands run into is trying to form a "social media" strategy to use social media as the cheapest way to market to the most people. This is a surefire way to go down the wrong path.

However, if you have a greater goal than marketing - perhaps a strategy around communicating with customers - it will look and behave differently. You will actually listen and interact with people as though they are people. This isn't about having a bot to track words and auto-respond to specific topics. It's about having real people listening to what customers are saying and finding ways to help them.

As long as companies try to market at consumers and allow their ad budget to define their brand, they're going to have challenges. Consumers are now actually defining the brand for you, so you better be on the same page with them.

When brands understand that people want to be treated like people and not like wallets with legs, they're going to start taking big steps in the right direction. The lifetime value of the consumer who is treated with respect and honesty is going to pay huge dividends - much more than maximizing today's sales.

Scott Monty, head of social media, Ford Motor Company

It comes down to respect for your consumers. I keep a printout of one of Hugh MacLeod's cartoons on my desk to remind me of that: "If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they'd punch you in the face." We need to keep in mind that everyone is exceptionally busy. The time people are taking to spend with your brand online should provide them with some sort of value.

When I think of creating value, I always remember the 4 Es of content: entertaining, enlightening, exclusive, and engaging. If a brand is able to provide any one of these - or even all of them - their interactions will be seen as welcome rather than as an obtrusive interruption.

In addition to the content itself being of value, we also need to think of the way it's delivered. With so many channels to choose from, marketers and communicators need to be prepared in every one of them, as consumer preferences are more fractured than ever. However, success in this area isn't judged on the ability to syndicate content across multiple platforms with one-way messaging; the victors will be those who understand how to listen, respond, and continue the value-creation cycle.

In this case, I would argue that it's not the medium that's the message; it's the messenger. People prefer interacting with a real human being rather than a nameless, faceless brand. We've had no problem doing this with customer service; why aren't we doing it for other functions, as well? If brands can create opportunities to connect with our customers on a more human level - via real dialogue and personality - rather than taking a one-way mass-marketing approach, consumers are much more likely to be receptive.

Michael Young, SVP, Access Communications

Usage of social media by brands is becoming more sophisticated, subtle, and in some cases effective. Yet companies still fall afoul of the basic tenets of social media, variously by sins of commission or omission.

Do a search for "worst social media cam- paigns" and you'll be regaled with a rogue's gallery of brands behaving badly on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The #FAIL hashtag strikes fear - and rightly so - into the heart of every communicator. Avoiding its appli- cation to your brand is relatively easy, yet companies still fall victim because they fall into the following traps:

  • Trying to be cool. Creative edge is good. Yet brands seem to run amok consistently with social campaigns aimed at being "memorable and cool" that upon morning-after reflection were sexist, hollow, or just in bad taste. How will it play in Peoria or to your mom? That is still a useful rubric.
  • Being dumb. Trying to get buzz by promoting a shoe or perfume using a hashtag tied to a country embroiled in civil strife (#Egypt, #Iran) is just plain dumb. OK, it's evil. Blaming the intern for this activity is equally dumb.
  • Being robotic. Responding to an 8-year-old's letter to your company with a form letter is behaving like a 'borg and will invite rebuke. Not just from his dad. Social media implies people. People will be more forgiving of a person than a faceless corporation. Behave like a human.
  • Being unresponsive. Not responding to angry customers will, shockingly, make them angrier. Social media is not a thing to be conquered; it's a place to interact. It doesn't take much to be social, but it does take commitment. Be swift and take care of your customers.
  • Being phony. People are good spotting a fake. Spamming your community with "seemingly real" voices hyping your new product is a surefire way to annoy them and drive them to unlike and un-follow your brand. Real engagement is at stake, so act accordingly.

The Takeaway

  • Companies need to show customers that real employees are engaging with them via digital channels, rather than a nameless, faceless brand
  • Don't try to be cool, edgy, or disruptive. Companies need to identify an authentic voice for their brands online and on social media
  • Companies should use social media to have conversations with customers, rather than using it as a tool to blatantly sell something

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