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A tweet there, a status update here, a blog post over there. This seemingly inconsequential stream of online commentary has suddenly begun to challenge the orthodoxies of traditional marketing approaches. Granted, corporates may have come to the social media party late, but they are showing every intention of playing catch-up. And those companies that don’t embrace these new methods of communication risk being left behind in the turgid realm of old media.

Justin Spratt, managing partner at Quirk eMarketing, brought some of SA’s top social media thinkers and doers together at The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) on Tuesday 12th October. They discussed the effect that new technology platforms are having on brand awareness and consumer behaviour, as well as on society itself.

The power individuals now have to broadcast their opinions to friends and followers on their networks can be to the benefit or detriment of any brand, no matter how powerful. As news of a company’s triumphs or missteps can spread like a virus, how do marketers and PR agents respond?

Mike Stopforth, founder and CEO of Cerebra, illustrated the power of new media by arguing that brand identity was formed through the collective thoughts, associations, emotions and experiences of the user. Such modes of behaviour have been with human beings forever, he argued, but were now being amplified by technology. “It’s word-of-mouth on steroids,” he explained.

Social media was about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, Stopforth chimed. He urged businesses to empathise with, and listen to, their customers, and to see the product as their buyers do. “It can be very difficult to read the label when we are inside of the bottle,” he said.

The consumer is getting smarter faster than we can keep up, he added, and thus companies looking to understand social media need to get to grips with the idea of community, rather than a de-humanized set of data to be manipulated and codified. “Community-building happens over the long term. It’s not a T20 match; it’s a five day test,” he said.

From left to right, Andre Hugo, Mary Mzumara, Justin Spratt, Mike Stopforth, and Jarred Cinman, who sees the fervour surrounding pop star Justin Bieber as a symbol of the tyranny of the crowd.

Jarred Cinman, strategy director at Native, articulated a more contrarian perspective. Firstly, he said, social media has had an insidious effect on people’s conduct, as it cultivates egoism and was highly distractive. “Human beings love distracting things,” he observed, at which point, Stopforth quipped that idling on Facebook in the workplace was “social not-working.”

The ongoing infatuation with networking is the ultimate opiate of the masses, Cinman scoffed, drawing on Marxist theory. “[Users] might hate a brand, but they’re still talking about brands.”

“It’s a playground for the worst aspects of human nature – greed, power, lust, revenge and the sheep mentality,” Cinman said. He added that the anonymity enjoyed by people commenting on online news articles or YouTube videos allowed racism, sexism and fundamentalism to flourish.

There was also the alienation of having scores of fake friends, which Cinman observed was odd when compared with the increase in depression in young people. “A thousand friends, how could I be depressed?” he joked.

The networks also bred a culture of sameness and unoriginality that he claimed was built into the system. “For me the notion of the long tail is a complete misnomer.” People are clustering around a few ideas and repeating them, he explained.

Mary Mzumara, another managing partner at Quirk, countered this with some revealing examples of the consequences of disobeying the crowd. She used the recent experience of clothing retailer GAP, and its hasty withdrawal of an ill-conceived rebranding exercise. Online users voted down its new logo, forcing the company to revert back to its iconic tag. Judgement was still out on whether this was a marketing coup or catastrophe.

Justin Spratt, Jarred Cinman, and Mike Stopforth. An audience member playfully reprimanded Stopforth on Twitter for being distracted by his phone during the discussion, to which he tweeted back: "@candiceburin pff. I have the attention span of a goldfish"

There are three broad categories of social media objectives - sales or marketing gains; increased engagement and; improved relationships or reputation. Mzumara alluded to this by differentiating between sales media and social media.

Employers too, Mzumara suggested, could tap into the power of online crowds and suck the marrow of talent out of their employees by better engaging them on social networks. The only thing stopping corporates from taking the leap is fear and trepidation, she warned.

According to Andre Hugo, a director at Deloitte, the auditing firm had already made that leap, and with amazing consequences. As a pioneer of Deloitte Digital, Hugo spoke of the improved intellectual capital and originality that had come out of obliging employees to generate more ideas and share them on internal networks. 

In a recent drive, Deloitte employees created a pool of thousands of original business proposals, half a dozen of which resulted in concrete ventures. The effective internal use of social media whittled a six-month process down to six weeks, and increased the dynamism and elasticity of the business.

Contra Stopforth, Hugo argued that social media was just another set of data that companies could analyse and use. He illustrated this with a series of inkblot graphs that demonstrated the spread of key messages through targeted networks. Hugo’s approach highlighted how online data can inform and improve communication tactics, resulting in a better return on investment for companies.

Andre Hugo conveying the power of social media

The panel expressed the view that if corporates did not integrate social media into their marketing strategies they could be sure their competitors were doing so. This motivation, while true on some levels, seemed to fall prey to the “sheep mentality” derided by Cinman. A more effective approach, as shown in Hugo’s case study, is for marketers to understand what they want to achieve through social media before they set out, and to convince management to buy into the expectations and definitions of success in social media.

The overarching message of the evening was that social networking is fast reaching its zenith and those who do not engage with it will simply be ignored. And whatever you do, don’t ban your employees from surfing their networks at the office.


Sarann Buckby is a director at Phatic Communications, a digital PR and social media agency. David Ansara is a freelance writer.

Photos: David Ansara

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