Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Accelerating Social Media--the Roles of Force and Brand Mass

In the last post we explored how marketers have alternatively broken or relied upon the communications versions of Sir Isaac Newton's First and Third Laws of Motion. Newton established these inviolable physical laws in 1687, and they still stand today for simple mechanical motion; however, from a marketing perspective, the laws of communication motion have been rewritten in recent years due to the growth of Social Media tools and consumer adoption of Social Networks.

Perhaps I am stretching my Newton analogy too far, but I believe we can prepare and protect our brands by considering Newton's Second Law of Motion: Force equals mass times acceleration. In scientific terms, it is expressed as:

Fnet = m * a

Acceleration: Social Media Buzz or Buzzkill?

Since we marketers care about the Acceleration (a) of our brand in Social Media, we can alter Newton's equation to account for Force (F) and Mass (m) in the following way:

a = Fnet / m

What this tells us is that our (or others') ability to accelerate a brand in either a positive or negative direction is proportional to the force exerted and inversely proportional to the mass of the brand.

The little "net" in the equation is important. Newton realized that objects in motion are subject to all sorts of opposing forces. He determined that motion wasn't caused by force but net force--the difference between contrary forces. If you nudge a pen across a table, you are giving it applied force, and since your finger pushing in one direction has greater force than friction pushing in the other, the pen moves--the applied force (your finger) minus the friction force is the net force that sets the pen in motion.

As much as I enjoy sounding like Bill Nye, let's focus on what this means to brands in Social Media. What is acceleration in Social Media? When advancing in a desirable direction for the brand, you might call it Word of Mouth, impressions, or buzz. But acceleration can also push a brand in an unwanted direction--buzzkill.

For example, Twitter's Trending Topics, displayed on the right side of Twitter profile pages (such as on my profile page) or on the Twitter search page, can change hour to hour. The Trending Topics list reveals the brands or topics that are accelerating on Twitter, but the list alone doesn't tell you whether that motion is positive or negative. For example, this evening Adam Lambert is one of the top trending topics. The former American Idol came out of the closet, and a cursory review of the thousands of tweets referencing Lambert show a great deal of support of the "I love Adam Lambert" variety.

"iPhone" is also trending on Twitter tonight, but not in the direction you might expect. The normally buzzworthy mobile phone platform is drawing gripes and complaints tonight (or at least AT&T is). While some on Twitter are excited about the new iPhone hardware, many are complaining about the price and the lack of an upgrade discount for loyal iPhone owners. Twititions (the Social Media version of petitions) have been launched to demand AT&T offer reasonable upgrade prices.

Acceleration and deceleration are the name of the game in Social Media, but what causes changes in Social Media momentum?

Applied Force and Friction in Social Media

A brand is never acted upon by just one force--a myriad of forces are always pushing and pulling brands in one way or another. We can draw an analogy between the two primary physical forces and their counterparts in Social Media:

  • Applied Force/Active Brand Participation: In the physical world, applied force is a force that is applied to an object by a person or another object. In Social Media, this is the force exerted on the brand by the participation of those within the company (such as marketers, customer service, etc.) and those outside.

    If your brand is not participating (or under-participating) in Social Media, then it is subject to the whims of others who are applying force on the brand--both the positive force that comes from loyal customers, vendors, and other stakeholders and the negative force that comes from critics, activists, dissatisfied customers, and others. It is hard to imagine why a brand would want to opt out and leave its reputation in Social Media to the forces applied by outsiders, but some have been slow to engage in Social Media due to a fear of a loss of control, concerns about transparency, and uncertainty how to proceed.

    Aside from the obvious reasons for brands to engage in Social Media, here's another: Remember that it is net force that matters. A brand that is at rest in Social Media can easily face negative momentum with the slightest adverse force applied in the form of a damaging rumor, embarrassing video, product problem, or similar Social Media PR issue. Conversely, a brand with constant positive force applied by marketers and others within the enterprise maintains positive momentum that helps to combat any unexpected negative occurrences.

    Constantly engaging with consumers and fans permits brands to build positive momentum in the form of improved reputation, greater trust, and wider networks of supporters who are less inclined to believe or listen to attacks and more apt to speak on behalf of the brand.

  • Friction/Consumers Waning Attention: In the physical world, friction will cause a moving body to slow to a dead halt. The equivalent in the Social Media realm is the friction of waning consumer attention. A brand that once had momentum can lose it if the brand fails to maintain engagement in Social Media. If you give consumers a reason to care today but fail to do the same tomorrow, friction sets in--consumers lose attention, turn elsewhere, and begin to disconnect from your brand.

    Brand friction isn't new or unique to Social Media. Even before Web 2.0, brands that were neglected would grind to a halt--Woolworth's, Chiclets, Gimbel's, Brim, and Burger Chef, for example. In Social Media, friction is even greater and momentum is lost more quickly.

    Brand Obama used Social Media, including Twitter, to build a fan base and win the US Presidential Election in November; according to The Nation, 25% of those who voted for Obama were linked to him via one or more of his online networks. But what happened after Candidate Obama became President-Elect Obama? Many of his Social Media accounts went silent, and his Twitter volume dropped from over 100 tweets in the four months before the election to three in the four months after.

    This sudden loss of Obama's constant attention to Social Media caused some questions and complaints. For example, the day before his inauguration, a blogger posted an article, "Barack Obama’s Web Wasteland," in which he noted "Neglecting the vast social media networks he built up during the campaign seems like a bad way to start." The New York Times recently reported on a memo about the White House's use of Web 2.0, noting that "a lot of us have grown a bit restless, looking at how slowly the White House is adopting Web 2.0 tools." A brand or person that is established in Social Media with continual and positive interaction will quickly lose steam when that engagement ceases.

    (For the record, the memo cited many reasons for Obama's diminished presence in Social Media, including that his campaign team dedicated over 170 staffers to new media while the White House New Media team has fewer than 10 full-time employees.)

Brand Mass and Social Media

If marketers' and others' ability to accelerate a brand in Social Media is directly related to the force applied, then it is inversely proportional to the brand's mass. In this case, "mass" means the scope and breadth of understanding about the brand. In other words, a brand with little awareness or understanding is easy to accelerate in any direction, while a brand with great affinity is more difficult to move.

This is really no different than in the real world, of course. A small brand like a restaurant can add tablecloths and alter the menu to foster a new brand that--if appropriately targeted and executed--will quickly alter consumers' perceptions. On the other hand, larger brands with widespread recognition can take considerable effort and time to redirect.

Tropicana attempted to rebrand their orange juice with new packaging this year but didn't succeed in changing anyone's perception of the brand except negatively; the new direction was quickly scrapped after complaints and a 20% plunge in sales. In 2006, Walmart (then Wal-Mart) attempted to alter their brand to include upscale goods; but, as noted on Ries' Pieces, the largest retailing giant in the world, "was unable to change any minds when it used advertising to try and move the brand upscale to sell expensive wine, clothing and jewelry."

The downside of a strong, widely recognized brand is that it is difficult to move, even when you want to do so. The upside is that it is difficult to move--a strong brand in Social Media can survive the occasional and unexpected PR blows that are prone to occur in Social Media. While the famed Mr. Unstable incident was hardly cost-free to Burger King, the brand was able to survive unscathed through careful PR response and thanks to a strong, established brand.

We don't really need Newton's three-century-old Laws of Motion to tell us that brands need to positively engage in Social Media, keep engaged, and strive to build brand mass that yields positive results and protects against the unexpected and uncontrollable. That's just common sense.

But while the need to gain a foothold in consumers' brains is obvious, the ways to do it are less so. Even Sir Isaac Newton, among the greatest minds ever to grace the human race, recognized that discerning physical laws were nothing compared to the complex and improbable ways of the human mind. He said, "I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

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