Master Class: Can brands interact on social networks without appearing overly intrusive?

This month's panel discusses how to be a welcome participant in social media.

Julie Atherton
Worldwide director, digital, Hill & Knowlton

David Gorodetski
Cofounder, COO, and executive creative director, Sage Communications

Kevin King
Managing director, New York Digital, Edelman

Sydney Lindner
Assoc. director of corporate affairs, Kraft Foods

John Moore
WOM enthusiast with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, independent consultant

Julie Atherton, worldwide director, digital, Hill & Knowlton

As with all marketing communications, the formula for being a brand that's welcomed rather than shunned is straightforward: Offer consumers a valuable exchange – deliver entertainment or exclusive information – that is relevant.
Social networking sites (SNS) are highly personal platforms where people socialize with friends or like-minded people. They also serve a specific function, such as LinkedIn, which is for career-based social networking. While we marketing types might aspire otherwise, the reality is most people do not consider brands “friends.” I love Apple, but I wouldn't be happy if they interrupted my conversation with an overseas acquaintance while we catch up on Facebook.
Brands can have a legitimate place on these sites, provided they do three things:
1. Offer things audiences want or need. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said,
“Communities already exist. Think about how you can help that community do what it wants to do.” We recommend brands provide an interesting or engaging user experience. Some brands doing this well on Twitter are: JetBlue, which notifies followers about exclusive flight deals; Dell, which focuses on customer service; and Pinkberry, which offers information about various fun events.

2. Be transparent and reassuring. If consumers choose to engage with a brand in their online social space, they deserve respect in return. Be clear about what the brand's intentions are in that social media space. If you upset one person on SNS, you will quickly upset the entire social network.
3. Listen. Before a brand engages customers through SNS, listen to your target audience. Are they status-update addicts, game players, video sharers? Once understood, you can create the right experience and add value.

David Gorodetski, cofounder, COO, and executive creative director, Sage Communications

Unlike traditional media, the key to success when it comes to social networking sites is relevancy, which means engaging with users in the right place at the right time about what matters to them.
Brand managers must do their homework to identify the most appropriate sites for reaching their key audiences in order to avoid perceptions of intrusion. An appropriate site is one where the users' commonalities, and thus the site's content and tone, align with the brand's message. Choosing a site where the users and the brand share a common bond makes the audience more receptive to the brand's message and also more accepting of the brand's interaction.
It is also key to consider how to best connect with the site's audience. Brand managers should both respect and make use of the collaborative, interactive nature of such sites by actively engaging in conversations to build a relationship with the audience. This means making a valuable, content-based, and transparent contribution to the discussion that adheres to the site's tone and style.
For example, forums are a great opportunity for company experts to participate by offering insight and analysis in response to user questions, or for posting relevant white papers on topics of interest to the site's community. The brand contribution is relevant and related to the communication already present on the site, and thus more likely to be positively received.
Of course, brand managers must be open to all user commentary and input without becoming defensive, and should refrain from both discussing competitors or trying to make a hard sale to the community's users. Dialogue on social networking sites can lead to a stronger relationship between the company and its target audiences, but only if the brand keeps the interaction relevant and open.

Kevin King, MD, New York Digital, Edelman

To address how, it is important to first establish why brands should be on social networking sites. Much has been said regarding why social networking is essential for connecting with audiences, but it is also vital for brands to be involved in social media to manage online visibility. Having a social media profile for your brand will help improve organic search results and provide a platform in which to respond to a crisis or opportunity in a relevant channel and authentic voice.
Far too often, we see brands trying to do the same thing – or everything – on every social media initiative. Brands become intrusive (sometimes completely spammy) in social media when they lack a strategy that is relevant to their target audience.
Brands are also often out of context in terms of their chosen social media environments. For example, Facebook is an excellent platform for cause initiatives. YouTube works well as a vehicle for education and training. Twitter is a unique way to promote last-minute offers or breaking news. Not everyone is considering these important nuances.
Relevance expands beyond strategy. Companies also need to be relevant in terms of how a social media channel is used. Companies struggle with the timeliness of most social media due to existing approval and legal processes. If a company has clearly established that it is engaging and monitoring its social media efforts, users will expect their comments and concerns to be addressed quickly. Companies must take a hard look at their internal approval processes and policies to be sure they can meet the expectations of a social media audience.

Sydney Lindner, associate director of corporate affairs, Kraft Foods

As social networks grow, and time spent on them explodes, the need for a brand strategy that ensures your business appropriately participates in and leverages them is critical. Brands and their fans naturally seek each other out in social networks and for good reason. According to Nielsen, Facebook and MySpace have retention rates of almost 70% creating abundant paid and earned opportunities for meaningful two-way interactions.
With a large budget, brands can generate exposure and profile page traffic through media buys and homepage takeovers. Brands with smaller budgets can take advantage of built-in mechanisms, including walls and news feeds, that help drive organic awareness of a brand page.
To avoid intruding on consumers, brands must confine interaction and conversations to the brand page. In the case of Facebook, a brand's fans will self-select, allowing brand news to appear on a wall. Brands should avoid commenting on individual consumer profiles. Facebook, for example, has designed its brand pages to prevent brand posting on an individual's profile. In addition, friend requests cannot be sent as a brand identity.
Brands must establish a presence throughout social media on sites that can improve a social networking footprint, including Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and blogs. A strong presence can help drive consumers to a brand's social networking page in a non-intrusive manner via links. When visiting one network, a consumer can opt in to connect with you on another at the click of a mouse. 
When working with agencies on social networking tactics be sure and select a firm that understands your brand essence and the social media landscape. The “rules” of what is an intrusion and what is acceptable continually evolve. Expert counsel is needed to ensure a brand's social networking presence is effective.

John Moore, WOM enthusiast with WOMMA and independent consultant

Listen. Learn. Respond. That's the best recipe for a brand to participate in conversations happening online without being viewed as an uninvited guest.
Listening is easy because the conversation is already happening online. Search any social networking site and you'll see firsthand who is talking about your brand, as well as the tone of their comments. If a brand has any charisma, someone somewhere is talking about it.
Learning is more difficult. If a brand lacks confidence in its products or services, then it will not want to listen to negative feedback from customers. Brands need to realize that inside any negative comment is a valuable kernel of truth. Instead of just ignoring the negative comment, a brand needs to learn from it. Social networking sites offer brands an invaluable opportunity to learn from a real-time feedback channel.
Responding is a requirement for brands to be viewed as an invited guest on social networking sites. Just like in the offline world, customers want their opinions to be heard online. By directly responding to customer feedback through blog comments and tweets, brands can foster deeper relationships with customers. 
By joining the online conversation through listening, learning, and responding, brands can use social media as another channel to provide customer service. Social networking sites offer brands an intimately public way to turn detractors into supporters and supporters into evangelists.

The Takeaway

• Relevance is critical to engaging with social networking audiences. Addressing complaints and responding to consumer feedback are two ways to interact in a relevant way

• Engage with audiences in ways that are appropriate for the social networking platform. There are differences between social networks in tone and purpose

• Listening is as important as responding. Taking compliments as well as criticism and addressing those concerns will make a brand a welcome addition to a social network

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