Those of us who are predicting the future are writing about the power of this medium to create greater authenticity, to build trust and to surface genuine advocacy. Success will not be won, we emphatically declare, by the brand with the largest advertising budget but the brand that earns authentic relationships and activates authentic Word of Mouth based on trust, transparency and a commitment to do right by the customer. Brands that collect authentic fans and engage in authentic conversations will thrive while those that cheat to accumulate worthless fans and trivial conversations will suffer when consumers learn of the brands' inauthentic exploitation of the social medium.
Authentic, authentic, authentic--social media may hold many surprises as it matures, but by God, we know the future will be authentic!
Since then, social media has matured--we got that much correct--with consumers adopting social media in droves, making it a big business. Forrester reports that marketers will spend close to $3 billion this year on social media marketing, and with that kind of money comes a great deal of immediate corporate expectations. Authentically create fans? To hell with that, we want lots of "fans" and want them now. Who cares if they actually are fans (the kind that do not need to be bracketed within quotation marks)?
In the war for fans, authenticity was the first casualty, and the weapons deployed were sweepstakes, giveaways, contests and social game freebies. Einstein Bagels gave every new Facebook fan a free bagel, and it garnered a 7,000% increase in Facebook fans in just three days; perhaps a few of these folks were already fans--in the true sense of the word--but the vast majority had no affinity for the brand and were simply bought with a $1.10 bagel. Gerber deployed a baby photo contest in which those who wanted to vote for a friend's or relative's baby were required to become fans of the brand, regardless of whether they ever purchased a product from or had any relationship with Gerber. And Farmers Insurance gave away a freebie to Farmville players and set "the Guinness World Record for most 'likes' in a 24-hour period." (Does anyone else feel a bit queasy realizing there is a Guinness World Record for collecting "fans" that have absolutely no relationship with the brand? I wonder if Bernie Madoff gets his name included in the Guinness book for tricking the largest number of people with a Ponzi scheme.)
Weren't Facebook "fans" supposed to be authentic fans? According to the social media gurus, people who fanned a brand would be signalling their authentic affinity for it, and this genuine expression of brand love would ripple through trusted relationships in social networks, multiplying awareness and purchase intent from one consumer to the next to the next. This is not what happened for most brands, because most brands did not start with the most important thing: Fans with authentic affinity
No one benefited from the fact marketers used inauthentic means to amass meaningless fans. Although people could have gotten true value out of knowing which brands their friends love, today none of us can tell if our friends' likes were motivated by true brand advocacy or a Mafia Wars freebie. Marketers lost, as well. Thanks to EdgeRank, Facebook's algorithm to keep users' news feeds as interesting and sticky as possible, brands that accumulated disinterested fans failed to break through to most users' news feeds, and thus few "fans" ever see, much less engage with, brand status updates. The result is easy to see throughout Facebook--fan pages with huge fan counts but small ratios of them "talking about" the brands. Inauthentic fans cannot drive authentic engagement.
It is difficult, for example, to get people talking about insurance, risk and financial security, so Progressive's Flo rarely even tries; instead, she shares things like a picture of an ear of corn on a unicycle. (Oh, that Flo--it's a unicorn!) Other brands beg people to "like" if they believe one thing or "share" if they believe another. In my opinion, the nadir of inauthentic and desperate engagement tactics came when Blackberry challenged fans to "write out 'BlackBerry' one letter at a time in the comments box, without interruptions," resulting in almost 19,000 one-letter replies with "B," "L," "A," "C"... well, you get the idea.
Brands were supposed to build trusted networks with valuable content, and instead they have turned into carnival midway barkers, simultaneously shouting at passing customers hoping to catch the attention of one or two gullible enough to be hustled. Like us! Share this! Comment!
|Thanks to the Condescending Corporate Fan Page for these examples.|
How does any of this pass for authentic engagement that reflects authentic brand relationships? The better question is how can this sort of vapid, pandering "engagement" build brands? Are you encouraged to check out a brand, research its products or consider a purchase because one of your friends announced he or she is on "team Peanut Butter" by liking a post by GE Appliances? "OMG, my friend is on team Peanut Butter--I should buy a GE refrigerator," said no one ever.
Social media was supposed to strip away the meaningless clutter of the mass media era, exposing true brand affinity and advocacy; instead, social media marketing strategies have encouraged brands to post any meaningless thing in pursuit of a comment, like or share. The irony is that none of this actually helps brands--just as inauthentic fans cannot create authentic engagement, neither can inauthentic engagement build authentic brand value. Asking people to spell your brand name one letter a time or share your picture of a vegetable on a unicorn doesn't spark awareness, consideration, preference or usage.
For example, Einstein's freebie giveaway garnered hundreds of thousands of bought fans, but it did not prevent the company from stumbling. Today the brand has three quarters of a million fans and just 500 people "talking about" them. Moreover, six months after the Facebook stunt, Einstein reported disappointing revenue with same-store sales down more than a percent, and two years later, the company had the lowest earnings growth in its industry. So many "fans," so few fans.
For another example, Blackberry can get tens of thousands of people to type the letter "B" in a reply, but it cannot successfully launch the phone it desperately needs to succeed. In the United States, the new Z10 phone "started poorly and weakened significantly" after that. Look at its Facebook page, and Blackberry looks like a winner with 26 million fans; look at its stock performance, and you will see a company that has lost almost 90% of its market cap since the advent of the social era.
It turns out that, much like in every other marketing channel, it is possible to buy impressions but you cannot buy success in social media. Authenticity is not dead, you just have to look a little harder to find it in social media nowadays. You can find authenticity:
- On Ford's Facebook page: Every post on brand. Every engagement focused on customers and enthusiasts. Not a single attempt to trick people in liking a post if they love tires or share a post if they think rear view mirrors are the bomb. Ford is a brand that conveys passion, focus, respect for customers and confidence in social media, and as a result, social media is credited with helping to build the brand and successfully launch products.
- On Home Depot's Facebook page--and on its community, its blog, or the many online forums in which it participates: Home Depot has earned praise and enhanced its business by putting its greatest asset--its experienced employees--to work answering consumer questions in the social networks where consumers are. The company does not dictate either the dialog or where consumers should interact with Home Depot but deploys resources and responds to consumer questions in the channels where customers are active.
- On the Duck Tape Facebook page: While the brand's 14,000 people "talking about" is disappointing given its fan count (of five million), you still have to hand it to a brand of adhesive tape for getting 14,000 people talking. I frequently hear from people who feel their brands have little interesting to say, and Duck Tape shows how creativity and crowdsourced ideas can help even a boring brand earn authentic engagement.
- On the USAA Facebook page: My former employer continues to demonstrate how to mix highly-engaging content with serious information to educate consumers and build brand loyalty. The brand is not beyond posting a photo of smiling child wearing fatigues to celebrate the Month of the Military Child (and earning 10,000 likes for doing so), but other posts in the days before and after help fans learn how to switch accounts to USAA, furnish education on financial planning for a PCS (Permanent Change of Station in military speak) and address questions on flood insurance.
It may be the exception and not the rule, but there are brands behaving authentically in social media. They collect the right fans, spark worthwhile dialog and--most importantly--authentically build business value in social media. They are not the brands that get a million fans in 24 hours, nor are they the ones pandering for likes and shares.
The brands that succeed in social media do not take short cuts; they put their nose to the grindstone, focus on their customers and build their social footprints slowly but steadily. Authenticity cannot be bought, nor is it earned with a click of the "like" button. Authentic relationships and authentic conversations matter, and those are still earned the old-fashioned way--with care, shared values and hard work.