Don't measure views. Measure value

Brands spend lots of time rooting around in the toolbox that is social media, hunting for exactly the right hammer and screwdriver to do the job of pumping up sales. But how can the medium be used most effectively and efficiently? How much does content factor into the equation?

Those questions were the focus of a recent roundtable discussion held as part of Social Media Matters Insiders. The discussion, hosted by [email protected] and Branded, covered topics ranging from real-time content to ROI to media partnerships. Senior marketers from prominent global brands came to share their ideas, but in order to encourage frank debate and clear-eyed insight, the organizers pledged anonymity to the participants.

With names, epaulettes, and affiliations left at the door, the discussion quickly honed in on the key question. Sure, great content gets great exposure. But is that worth anything? What constitutes value in this environment. Meaningful social metrics are still a work in progress. Were they not the debate about the one of the more memorable pieces of online advertising—the Volvo truck video—would never have taken place. It’s drawn 68 million views so far. But what exactly did the brand get out of that? Was it a success from a messaging perspective? That’s debatable, the group commented. After all, when asked about the commercial later, many people were unable to recall the brand that staged it.

For multinational consumer goods companies, the question of value is even more challenging to answer. It’s important to be selective about what and who you are on social media. Toiletry brands often come packaged differently in Taiwan than they are in the West, for example. With so fundamental a regionalization for the brand, is it any wonder that the whole context the brand provides—through social or other communications—has to be decentralized? Brands facing that issue have to gauge the value of a consistent social presence against the need for deep local expertise. That precludes a brand from having a global hit like Dove did, but it may help it connect and engage more strongly with its customers in an individual market. Does one strategy preclude the other?

In other words, what kind of content works best and in what circumstances? Many of the brands included in the event turned to video, looking at their audiences as a collaborator or co-creator, in order to drive up engagement and interest. One brand hired a local performer and invited people to tweet suggestions for his performance; comedy videos were posted on YouTube soon after, and the result was successful engagement. That’s no surprise to Google, who has posited that brands in the social space are talking to “Generation C,” a group who “care deeply about creation, curation, connection, and community.”

The challenge changes for B2B marketers. They have a long history of one-to-one marketing—a landscape that the big consumer brands are only just now finding the technological tools to deploy at mass scale.  They have to contend with a mismatch between purchase lifecycles and the audience appetite and conditioning for always-on marketing.  B2B brands have to keep customers interested in between purchases, which was a simpler matter in earlier times. Now keeping your brand top of mind means making sure the target audience is regularly entertained—and also informed, especially for businesses dealing with governments or in regulated industries. That means video, again, is a common approach—the more viral and memorable, the better—mixed in with white papers and research articles, to back up serious research linked to a product.

Keeping things going in a real-time marketing world is a challenge for everyone, and brands are still figuring it out. Brands have begun experimenting with content that does more than pay lip-service to real time marketing—a tactic perhaps most famously pulled off by Oreo at last year’s Super Bowl. One brand put out a call for tweets on a topic; the next morning, a team began grabbing relevant pieces of conversation and handing them to actors who within minutes started performing something based on the chatter. That formed the basis for a successful social-media event.

The challenge with real-time content is mostly internal—getting senior management’s buy-in with something that happens that quickly. Brands are also careful about creating expectations that they may not want to fulfill over time. Instead they may focus on an event such as Valentine’s Day, which is already on the calendar and provides an ideal platform for having seemingly spontaneous conversations with partners.

The internal challenge is understandable. Letting employees engage in social media is tricky. No longer can you say, “This is personal and this is professional” as one participant stated. “Your social media is going to have implications on your professional life.” But one brand created a series of forums and topic discussions using curated, predetermined content—allowing it to set the tone and direction from the start point. And the public likes to interact with high-ranking brand officers, so a free-for-all forum setting can in its own way be the perfect platform; a CEO can seamlessly delegate an answer to an in-house engineer or other expert.

That’s a lot better than having the CEO blabber incoherently or issue anodyne non-answers. Social media requires real content, whether in an online chat, a Twitter exchange, a Facebook post, or a video production (the last one being obvious, of course). Social media without content is like a coffee shop without coffee: It’s a great place to hang out, but would you go there if there was nothing to drink? For those who don’t plot a content strategy in advance, social media is an empty cup. One global study suggests people are still madly rushing in to find a venue and then realizing they don’t have the content to fill it, rather than coming up with a plan for content first, and then deciding where it can be deployed most effectively. The content is what makes the medium social, not the other way around.

And so we return to value. Content is expensive. Really expensive. Some participants felt that brands are making a mistake if they don’t put 60% of their costs into content and distribution. One potential answer is out-of-work writers and journalists; another is content companies such as Buzzfeed. But part of what’s vexing is the question of ROI. It’s not easy to measure the return—in the traditional, dollars-and-cents sense—of digital content that is more tangibly liked to likes and shares than it is to direct sales.

Traditional firms require a direct connection between expenses and revenues up front—but social-media content is often less about product and more about value and brand. But there are plenty of examples of real value there: Amazon, for example, seems to use content to drive commerce.

The frustration is there’s too much thinking on the part of brands that the content is just there by default, and there’s still very much an imbalance with new media versus the way things were done before. The mismatch between consumer online behavior and digital marketing spend is dramatic, but investment in content is ratcheting up. eMarketer just reported that 75% of B2B businesses will increase their spending on content in 2014. Given that, the questions of value and ROI will be resolved—there’s too much at stake for them not to be—and the brand or agency that figures out how to measure and prove the value of great social media tools across all sectors and audiences will enjoy a significant victory.

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