In many respects, social media has turned the worlds of marketing, advertising and public relations upside down. The practiced and preached marketing models, which some CEOs are still more comfortable with yet today, have been tossed aside for a completely new two-way communication approach. No more are the days when public relations professionals and marketers pushed out information to consumers, or developed flat campaigns to be disseminated through traditional media approaches. The seemingly one-way tube of communication has been broken. Let’s just say the average consumer now has an invite to the cocktail party…and he’s making a big entrance.
Companies should note that there are many, many individuals in the general public who want to speak with or about you. Social media provides a platform for conversation and increases two-way communication. No longer are websites static, they are now filled with dynamic, interactive content. With the rise of online conversational hosts like forums, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and comment functions, consumers can share opinions, concerns, questions and praise with the vast audience that makes up the Web 2.0. In this new world, your brand or company already belongs to the public. In a sense, content and information has become democratized.
By now, big media outlets have even contributed to the shift. Time magazine, for example, picked “You” as person of the year in 2006. With all of the recent growth online in blogs and social networking sites, it seems the media is still less reluctant to accept such changes, while big business has not fully come to terms with just how effective social media can be.
Prof. Robert Lauterborn, author of The New Marketing Paradigm, describes this shift as ‘demassification.’ According to Lauterborn, from 1950-1970, the marketing systems in the United States functioned like well-oiled machines. “Then,” Lauterborn says, “technology collided with society and human wants and needs.” In the 1950s, power was in the hands of the marketer. In the 1980s, the channel had the power; in the 1990s and after, the power shifted to the consumer.
Take Amazon, for example. Years ago, Amazon.com allowed unfiltered comments on their products sold online; at the time, competitors were astonished. Now, this consumer-based comment forum is standard, and consumers hold the communication power.
The key is to not view this new social media shift as a public relations disaster. Yes, consumers can provide instant feedback, some good, some bad, and some certainly ugly. Jim Tobin, author of Social Media is a Cocktail Party, advises public relations firms handling a company’s communication to do two things when negative comments are posted. “One, you leave it up. Two, you evaluate the point the person is making,” Tobin says.
But it is important to remember that social media also easily positions a segmented, specific audience in the hands of public relations professionals. Instead of seeking out a target audience, public relations professionals can quickly identify and communicate with targeted groups at the start of a major campaign. What’s better? Before even conceptualizing a campaign, professionals can read about nearly any subject of interest to the campaign from the viewpoint of the consumer, as there are likely already groups online talking about it.
Perhaps even more significant is how the public can essentially create the campaign for the public relations specialist. Alongside the occasional critic are brand enthusiasts who are motivated to share their excellent customer service experience or product satisfaction with a large web-based audience. Not only is this helpful from a promotional aspect, but also in gaining consumer trust.
It is no secret that public relations professionals are known to put ‘spin’ on things. Of course, professionals are trained to present and position clients in the best possible light, but that comes with a price. Even mildly-educated consumers know, for example, that the quotes used in press releases are often crafted by public relations specialists and are not uttered by the individual at all. The consumer often becomes skeptical of promotional efforts, or even comes to resent public relations campaigns.
Enter social media, and suddenly, the communication and recommendations are being shared consumer-to-consumer. Even if a public relations department is able to publish a feature article in a local daily newspaper, for example, readers will ponder what public relations firm was able position such a piece. On the other hand, hearing information from friends, family and trusted individuals with no stake in product sales whatsoever produces results. Third party credibility only increases transparency and authenticity. Online word-of-mouth also saves the company time, money and promotional effort.
In increasingly difficult economic times, return on investment has become even more important for public relations professionals to communicate back to the company. Luckily, when utilizing social media, there are tools available to make ROI easy. Search engine optimization alone has shown huge ROI for companies. Marketing segmentation of consumers online also helps companies to target a relevant consumer population, rather than wasting money on promoting a product to an irrelevant public. At the most basic level, however, is the fact that consumers are on social media. If a company isn’t, it is missing out.
As Jim Tobin so candidly says, “The party goes on with or without you.” The fact is, if a company is not utilizing social media, it is still being talked about at thousands of online cocktail parties. The problem is, the company is not hearing the conversations, nor is it apart of the public dialogue at all.
A common misconception that exists yet today is that the segmented population using social media consists mostly of teenagers and young adults, who perhaps do not have the purchasing power of older adults. The fact is, nearly half of Facebook users are over the age of 35 and the median age for LinkedIn users is 36. Older consumers are certainly already at the cocktail party.
Finally, many have predicted that social media is a fad that will die hard, as trends typically do. Many companies are still skeptical to develop departments, expand budgets or increase resources around what appears to be a communication trend. This will prove to be a costly mistake. A good public relations firm will advise its clients to integrate traditional promotional approaches with social media, even if the company is reluctant to do so.
Social media has become an important part of consumers’ lifestyles and daily routines; once integrated as a preferred communication tool, consumers will be very reluctant to let go. This makes sense. Once guests are able to engage in meaningful conversation at the cocktail party, why on earth would they want to leave?
Source: Tobin, Jim. (2008). Social Media is a Cocktail Party. North Carolina, USA: Ignite Social Media.
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