Business publications, daily newspapers, blogs, webinars, unconferences… Social media is discussed everywhere. It’s the new phenomenon that has turned conventional wisdom of brand building and corporate  communication on its head. In this series of articles, we shall take a 360º look at social media. Some of the aspects we shall explore: what constitutes social media; traditional media vs social media; how big companies are using social media; can social media be used for B2B communication, and more.

Three events that happened within the last one year or so, illustrate the enormous power of social media. The first is Barack Obama’s use of social media to mobilize funds and volunteers for his presidential campaign. The second is a socio-political event: the aftermath of Iran’s recent elections. And the third, the contrasting marketing strategies being used by McDonald and Starbucks a battle of epic proportions between traditional media and social media. But before we discuss these contemporary events, let’s see what constitutes the traditional media and the social media, and its evolution.

Traditional Media’ One-way Communication

Before the advent of Internet marketing, traditional media meant Print, Television, Radio, Outdoor. All these are ‘one-to-many’ media. Also included, are ‘one-to-one’ communication channels like Direct Mail. These are all ‘one-way’ communication. From the marketer to the target audience (TA). Of course, some of these media did include response devices like a coupon, the marketer still remained in control of the communication. That is how brand managers believed they could create brands, by having a consistent message delivered to the TA who remained a passive audience. The ‘voice’ of the consumer, his expectations from the brand, his experiences, all remained with him, because there was no channel he could use to make his voice heard.

The brand managers and the advertising agencies were aware of this lacuna, and so, sometime in the 60s, developed the role of ‘account planning’ to get an insight into the consumer’s mind and heart. In practice, however, the ‘voice of the consumer’ was, in most cases, not really representative because of the methods used to ‘record’ these ‘voices’. As a result, the ‘insights’ were not totally reliable.  The brand managers were still in control of the brand. The consumer was far removed.

Then Came the Internet

And things started to change. But the brand managers and their advertising agencies were blissfully unaware. Consumers started to take control. They were not prepared to be mere receptacles of messages, but had become the creators of brand messages. They formed into communities and shared their experiences of a brand. Check some of the brand hate websites. Do a Google search by adding a brandname before ‘ihate’ or after ‘isuck’ and you might be surprised to see how many such sites exist. These sites are built and funded not by the hated brand’s competitors, but by their consumers who feel that the brand did not deliver on their promise. This shows how disconnected the brand managers and their ad agencies were/are with their consumers, who now are real persons, and not just a ‘psychographic profile’.

The Consumer is in Control of the Brand now!

True democracy is all about people having the power to influence events and things that affect them. Today consumers are doing what was unthinkable even two years ago. They are taking a brand, creating a commercial and putting it up on YouTube for millions to see. They are becoming brand marketers! They have the power to engage with the brands more deeply, in ways that can enhance its reputation or destroy it in no time. Companies  who  understand this and are quick to build deeper relationships with their the consumers, can only thrive in today’s consumer-driven marketplace.

In a later post, we shall see how some of the big brands are using the consumer-generated content to their advantage

Next post: The Evolution of Social Media