Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Brands in Social Media? Consumers are Dumb (About What Influences Them)

Pull the plug on those brand programs in Social Media. They have no effect on consumer perception!

That is the conclusion of an article entitled "Social media’s overrated brand game," which sounds this cautionary note about the impact of brand efforts in Social Media: "Social networks are still not the best place to goose up brand perception." This assertion is based on overwhelmingly definitive consumer survey results, so I guess that's that--close the Twitter account, abandon your Facebook fans, and divert your budget away from Social Media!

Except for one thing: People--including you and me--are dumb when it comes to recognizing what influences their own beliefs and actions. The survey referenced in the Adotas article asked consumers to evaluate whether brands' presence in Social Media affected their perception of those brands, which plays directly into a psychological blind spot in human self awareness that is well known to researchers. It's called "third-person perception," and it is defined as the tendency for people to think others are more influenced by mass media than they are themselves.

Put less scientifically: The Workplace Media study is rubbish. They asked 753 office Internet users about Social Media, and "96 percent say that their opinion of a product or brand does not change if it does not have a presence on these sites." Asking people to assess the impact of a medium upon their beliefs and actions has been and always will be a bogus and useless way to evaluate a marketing medium.

Third Party Perception has been documented in several studies. In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver cite several such studies:
"The Third-Person Effect is a relatively new concept, as social science constructs go. It was invented in 1983 by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in a clever article that drew on intuition and public opinion theory...

"(Since then), the Third-Person Effect has been studied by asking participants to estimate communication effects on others and themselves. (For example), U.S. respondents estimated that the news media had a greater impact on others' opinions of the 1996 presidential candidates than on their own views (Salwen, 1998). More recently, research has found that individuals perceived others to be more influenced than themselves by the news of the "millennium bug" in Y2K and environmental problems (Jensen & Hurley, 2005; Tewksbury, Moy, & Weis, 2004)...

"Third person perceptions also emerge in judgements about advertising. Individuals perceived that other people were more influenced than themselves by commercials for household products, liquor and beer, and cigarettes (Gunther & Thorson, 1992; Shah, Faber, & Youn, 1999). Even young schoolchildren exhibit third-person perceptions. Elementary and middle school students perceived that cigarette ads have significantly greater impact on others than themselves (Henriksen & Flora, 1999)."

Of course, if you ask consumers if they want or are impacted by brands requesting they be "friends", we shouldn't be surprised by the answer. As noted on the Fresh Networks blog, research found that almost two in every three respondents to a survey were "fed up with the constant requests to join groups and try new applications."

Why shouldn't consumers be tired of and reject the obsessively self-centered, be-my-fan, let's-talk-about-me attitude of so much Social Marketing nowadays? A couple days ago I wrote about the Kohl's Facebook page where the company's Vice President of Digital Marketing attempted to pass himself off as a Kohl's fan eager to share deals. He hasn't posted since, but the Kohl's Facebook Wall has devolved into a platform for employee bragging. Eight of the last 10 posts are from employees giving shout outs to their stores ("1201 is number 1" and "1308 has the bestest employees"), while the only contribution by Kohl's official Facebook account is a brag about Britney Spears appearing on the Kohl's Web site. Where's the value for consumers? Where's the promise of one-to-one relationships with the brand?

Marketers need to be cautious about evaluating the value of Social Media based on consumers' self perception or consumer opinion of dubious Social Media strategies. Instead, look to the successes enjoyed by Social Media strategies that focus not on the brand but the consumer--Zappos on Twitter; Dell's reversal of brand perception fortunes; Ford's Social Media platform; Adobe's successful Facebook campaign; or ABSOLUT LOMO's UGC and blogger outreach success.

Or, on a small scale, check out the experience of Jessica Gottlieb, as reported on Jessica saw her children off on a trip and waited in the terminal to watch their plane take off; an hour later their plane was still stuck on the tarmac. What's a concerned parent to do? Twitter, of course! Jessica tweeted, “Dear Virgin Air, My children have been on the tarmac for one hour with 90 more minutes to wait. I am at JFK gate b25. Pls RT.” Her followers retweeted, and "within minutes, Virgin had phoned Gottlieb to reassure her that her kids would be fine."

We can debate whether or not brands can afford to respond to every aggrieved consumer tweeting a complaint, but this much is certain: Jessica Gottlieb had her opinion of Virgin America change because the brand was present, listening, and wanted to connect in Social Media. ("The guy who I spoke to at Virgin out of San Francisco was amazing. I think they're going in the right direction.") Perhaps if the survey participants in the Workplace Media study had all enjoyed an experience like this, they might recognize that brands' presence in Social Media does impact brand perception--but only if it's done right and with a focus on consumer needs and not just brand goals.

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