Over the past several years, social media marketing has been an addition to an increasing number of companies’ integrated marketing plans. Firms of all sizes are employing various platforms of this marketing tactic. At the most basic level, social media marketing enables conversations between firms and their customers, as opposed to traditional marketing methods where the firm directs the message. Businesses are beginning to realize that they cannot control these ongoing conversations, but rather, influence them. This trend has resulted in the growth of SocialCorps, “companies that are learning to take advantage of the power of social media to reshape their relationships with customers and other important audiences.”1 Popular social media sites visited by Internet users include: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Digg (Exhibit 1). Of those, the top four social sites used by marketers, in order of popularity, are: Twitter, Blogs, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Becoming a SocialCorp allows a company to gain benefits that are otherwise limited with traditional forms of marketing. Such advantages include: unparalleled access to market research, enhanced brand awareness and perception, better engagement with all stakeholders, increased control over the company’s marketplace message, and a richer user experience. This paper will explain how various companies have used social media marketing differently to achieve these advantages.
Social networking websites are visited by three-quarters of all Internet users2. With the growing popularity of social media usage, many companies believe Web 2.0 marketing is the future3. As social media marketing gains headlines in companies’ strategic agendas, astonishing statistics are revealed about the use of this marketing tactic:
* Dell estimates that through its various communication channels, the company has two billion “conversations” with customers every year.4
* 88% of marketers are using social media marketing for their business. Of these, 72% reported that they had been using social media marketing for a few months or less.5
* 79% of the Fortune 100 companies are present and listening, using at least of one of the main social platforms to communicate with their customers.6
* By 2011, online social media advertising in the U.S. will be approximately $2.5 billion.7
From these statistics, it is evident that companies of all sizes are actively using different social platforms to reach their target segments. However, a shift of focus to social media marketing will bring substantial transformation to a company’s strategic planning process. As such, this paper will answer a question that companies should ask when engaging in social media marketing: will it be more beneficial to leverage publicly available social media platforms or to build a platform in-house? Will the choice differ between companies, and what are the benefits and risks of either solution?
Benefits of Leveraging Established Social Media Platforms
The advantages of using an established social media channel over one created in-house are lower production and maintenance costs, quick access to a large established user base, ease of use for the consumer and increased information credibility. Businesses create company-specific marketing campaigns on established social media channels to leverage these benefits in order to engage consumers, increase brand and product/service awareness, reduce customer support costs, and drive revenues.
The Ford Fiesta Movement Campaign
A successful social media marketing campaign which demonstrated the benefits of using established social media channels was the Fiesta Movement Campaign by Ford. Ford gave 100 participants Ford Fiestas for six months and asked them to complete a different “mission” every month. These “agents” delivered dinners from Meals on Wheels, eloped with the help of the Fiesta, and wrestled alligators8 among many other things. Agents were required to document their adventures on Youtube, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter pages which Ford had created.
The Ford Fiesta Movement was considered an extremely successful social media campaign. Agents produced 700 videos which generated 6.5 million views. Photos taken by the agents have accumulated more than 670,000 views. The campaign prompted over 50,000 U.S. consumers to request more information about the car, 97% of which did not already own a Ford vehicle. In the first six days of sales, Ford sold 10,000 units. 9
First, using established social media channels allowed Ford to gain quick access to a large established user-base. Ford’s target market for its small European cars is Millennials, those born between 1979 and 1996. It is estimated that 75% of Millennials use social media sites and one in five have uploaded a video of themselves online.10 Ford therefore focused their efforts on the established social media sites, as a large majority of their target market is already using these sites. It was easier for Ford to leverage existing websites instead of working to direct consumers using an in-house social network.
Second, Ford was able to benefit from consumers who were already familiar with popular social media websites to build awareness. Ford hand-picked “agents” in their 20s who had already successfully built an online fan community of their own and who were able to craft a narrative.11 Instead of pitching the idea to agents as the means to a free car, agents were incented to create content for their own benefit to feed their current networks and build their own profiles. In the process, the agents contributed to building Fiesta’s brand by helping develop an image of glamour, uniqueness and excitement around the car.
Third, Ford created a sense of credibility by using external social media channels on which the content would be harder to control or modify. Ford took a huge risk by taking a “hands off” approach, telling agents to be completely truthful and agreeing not to edit or censor any information that was posted. This showed consumers that Ford cared about what they had to say which was particularly important at a time when consumers were not happy to be bailing out Amercian automotive companies.12 Allowing agents to freely express their opinions about the car also helped Ford to fix any reported problems or improve functionality based on the agents’ suggestions.
Ford used established social media channels to engage consumers and build brand awareness. Using Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube, Ford was able to gain quick access to its target market with consumers who were already users of these channels. Ford was also able to use specific consumers who were experts with these established channels to attract more viewers as well as raise awareness among the experts’ large base of followers. Finally, Ford established its credibility by allowing agents to post whatever they wanted. While Ford took a huge risk by agreeing not to edit the agents’ content, it ultimately worked in their favour.
Risks of Leveraging Established Social Media Platforms
Along with the many strengths of social marketing, there are also many risks that are associated with relying on third party platforms. For one, companies that engage in this medium often experience lack of content control. Second, information gets spread too quickly due to the large user bases of established social media websites. Third, the effectiveness of conventional social media marketing is limited, due to the sheer volume of companies already utilizing this mechanism.
Molson Coors Dorm Room Campaign
Molson Coors Brewing Company (Molson) is a classic example of how a company underestimated the negative consequences that are associated with traditional social media marketing mediums. Molson is Canada’s oldest brewery and the world’s fifth largest brewing company. Therefore, it is well-recognized within Canada and has a significant market share in the beer industry. In the past, Molson has experimented with blogs13 and a static corporate website, but has had very little social media presence overall. Recognizing that a large portion of their current target audience utilizes these mediums and wanting to catch up to its competitors, Molson initiated an online media campaign.
On October 18th 2007, Molson officially launched its “Dorm Room” project on the fastest growing social networking site – Facebook. The campaign encouraged Canadian university and college students from ages 19 to 24 to post pictures of themselves partying on campus. The school with the most pictures uploaded would win a trip for five to spend spring break in Cancun, Mexico. An advertisement for this campaign read, “Be the #1 party school in Canada; show everyone how you and your crew get the party started.”14 According to Molson, the intention of the campaign was to show “school spirit and sociability;” however, these goals were not reached and the campaign placed Molson under public scrutiny.
The nature of the campaign was highly criticized by universities, parents and students because they blamed the company for encouraging binge drinking. Even the front-runner of the contest, Memorial University in St. Johns, stated that the contest made them look bad. Within days, the company received numerous complaints. Several universities – including Queen’s, McMaster and St. Francis Xavier – condemned the contest in the Globe and Mail as “glorifying excessive drinking.”15 As a result of the public backlash, the contest was shut down a week prior to the November 29th deadline. While there are advantages for Molson to engage their customers via social marketing, the message of the “Dorm Room” campaign was controversial. As a result, this exemplifies how marketing using established social networking mediums can bring significant risks to the brand.
First, on Facebook and other traditional social media websites, companies cannot control how much freedom they give to their audience. Users have the freedom to post pictures, messages and videos. However, on in-house websites, companies have the ability to adjust the amount of power they give to the end consumer. Molson did not have the ability to control how much freedom they gave to consumers, allowing consumers to post whatever they wanted and consequently, violating the privacy rights of many individuals. Once a picture was posted, only Molson could remove the picture. Molson was unaware of certain individuals’ resistance to having their pictures posted on the site and the campaign generated negative backlash. Even as Molson shut down the contest, they could not ensure that they erased all traces of the pictures posted on the Internet.
Second, by using traditional social media websites, the established user base compounds the speed at which information is spread. In Molson’s case, pictures spread quickly across Facebook, much to the dismay of many students featured in the photographs. Facebook has over 500 million users who all had access to Molson’s pictures. Further, the pictures could be immediately viewed by the members of one’s network with the “tagging” and “news feed” features.
Finally, the effectiveness of conventional social media marketing is limited due to the sheer volume of companies who are already marketing to consumers on these websites. In 2006, U.S. companies spent $920 million on advertising on social media websites. Despite high spending, only 12% of Facebook users have added a brand to their page, and over 75% of Facebook users said they would not purchase a product or service from a brand via their profile page.16 Therefore, social media marketing should not be viewed as an infallible way for companies to promote. The Molson campaign was one of the many campaigns on Facebook and was popularized by the outcry of the public, rather than direct support from its target market. In total, only 200 pictures were uploaded onto Facebook and large universities such as the University of Toronto and Guelph University only submitted 15 photos each (Exhibit 3).17
By using traditional social media channels, managers might be forced to give up control over the contents to the websites and to their users. In Molson’s case, it passed the power to individuals who posted images onto Molson’s Facebook campaign page. The company should be wary of the freedom which the users can have when it reengages itself in conventional social media marketing. Also, social media websites have large user bases; this implies that the information found within these sites can travel at an extreme speed. Photos posted on Molson’s page were not limited to just Molson’s examination but they were available for the entire network.
Finally, even though social media websites have gained tremendous popularity and enormous adoption rates, every campaign should be redesigned for each medium in order to stand out from the competitors. Molson failed to capture a large audience with its campaign because Facebook is already saturated with many advertisers. Therefore, Molson needs to establish a creative method to market its campaign when it reengages in using conventional social media websites. In general, social media advertisement can be a phenomenal way to increase brand awareness when it becomes a company’s integrated marketing campaign, as long as the associated risks are acknowledged and accounted for.
Benefits of Developing In-House Social Media Platforms
There are many benefits associated with creating and managing an internal social community. First, a company has the flexibility to display information in the way they intended. Second, keeping a social network in-house also helps bring legitimacy and credibility to the information available on the platform. Finally, creating a separate social media platform allows users to have access to a closed network.
Pampers Village Campaign
Pampers’ slogan, “every step of the way”18 embodies their overall strategy. Pampers strives both to provide a high-quality product and a supply a service for women throughout their pregnancy and early child rearing years. The company has created and continues to host an online social community, Pampers Village, to facilitate an open network of communication between itself and its customers (Exhibit 4).
On the website, parents have access to a breadth of information about the pregnancy process. They also have access to parenting tips and advice as their child ages. Parents have the ability to communicate with both other parents and also with Pampers’ panel of “baby experts.”19 Pampers Village exemplifies many of the benefits associated with hosting an internal social community, as opposed to promoting their brand via established social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
First, Pampers Village ensures that Pampers has enormous flexibility in the way data is displayed and how communication is encouraged. On Twitter, or example, messages are limited to 140 characters. Although websites such as Facebook allows more flexibility than Twitter, the pages companies can create nonetheless have preset layouts and formats. Pampers Village is divided into five sections depicting a stage in a child’s life. Each section is further divided into categories which discuss various issues a mother may face at that stage. Existing social media websites would not have been the appropriate medium to host Pampers Village on as the display and organization of data would be restricted by the inherent limitations of the existing platform.
Second, developing their own social network brings legitimacy to their message. On traditional social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, anyone can share their thoughts and claim to be an expert. However, on Pampers Village, there are a variety of experts from the Pampers Parenting Network (PPN) moderating discussions and providing pregnancy and parenting advice. PPN members participate in Q&As, write blogs and articles and post video demonstrations. PPN experts include: Laura Jana, M.D., a widely recognized parenting expert; Lisa Druxman, founder and CEO of Stroller Strides; and Julian Claus-Ehlers, executive chef and expert in healthy eating habits for the family.20 Mothers visiting Pampers Village recognize that they have access to high-quality and credible advice from parenting experts and thus continue to return to the website.
Finally, creating a social media platform separates the audience from their traditional network. Mothers have to register to use Pampers Village; however, they can register under whichever name they choose, bringing anonymity to the platform. If Pampers Village was hosted solely on Facebook, the forums likely would not be as active. Forum conversations include, “Actively trying to start a family,” “LGBT Parenting”21 and “Baby Basics.”
Mothers would be less likely to be open and honest on these forums if their posts were in full view of their entire social network, as it would be difficult to ensure confidentiality of these discussion posts on traditional social media websites such as Facebook. Pampers Village provides mothers the opportunity to network with other mothers in a closed network. Jodi Allen, North American vice president and general manager for Pampers echoes this sentiment, “All moms share a common goal — to raise a healthy, happy child. And the great thing about Pampers.com is that moms can connect, bond and chat with other moms all over the globe in real time and share in each other’s experiences.”22
A strong online presence is critical to Pampers’ success. “We leverage Pampers Village to maintain a constant conversation and relationship,” says Zeeshan Shams, category brand manager, baby and toddler care, Procter and Gamble, Canada. “Our online properties help to keep our brand top of mind.”23 Despite massive competition in the online parenting field, Pampers Village has been largely successful in accessing new mothers. In 2009, Pampers Village generated 20,000 unique visitors per month in Canada.24
It is likely that the Pampers Village concept would not have been as successful if it had been hosted on a traditional social network. The creators of Pampers Village correctly recognized that in order to gain an audience in the online parenting field and consequently learn more about their customers; they needed to create their own social community. The development of a brand new network allowed the company to distribute a wide variety of content in their own format, brought legitimacy to the platform and created a new community where mothers could connect anonymously. The success of Pampers Village illustrates the benefits of taking a risk and developing a new social network.
Risks of Developing In-House Social Media Platforms
Despite the many benefits that can be gained by developing a unique in-house social media platform or campaign, this approach presents a number of risks and challenges. First, it can sometimes be difficult to engage consumers and draw them to newly created social media websites. Second, in-house social media efforts are likely to require greater maintenance and monitoring. Third, in-house developments demand a greater degree of corporate responsibility than is needed when using publicly available social media platforms.
GM Chevy Tahoe Apprentice Campaign
In the spring of 2006, General Motors teamed up with Donald Trump’s The Apprentice franchise to create a website that allowed contestants to develop their own commercial to promote the new Chevy Tahoe SUV. Their website, ChevyApprentice.com, encouraged participants to design a 30 second digital advertisement by selecting from a variety of pre-set backgrounds, video clips, and theme music that GM had constructed. These user-generated commercials could also include floating text over the images of the creators choosing.25 In addition to having their personal commercial aired on television, the winner and other top contenders had the chance to win a number of big-ticket items, such as a trip to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.26
Over the course of the contest, thousands of users took the opportunity to share their personal thoughts on the Tahoe. Not surprisingly, the ability to share one’s thoughts freely created the perfect opportunity for the anti-SUV crowd to voice their discontent for GM’s newest vehicle. Of the 22,000 commercials that were submitted, approximately 4,000 took a negative tone.27 The majority of these submissions were either anti-SUV, promoted a specific cause, defamed a particular group or directly attacked the product (Exhibit 5).
For example, some critics pointed fingers at GM for contributing to global warming, as witnessed in an ad that featured shots of the Tahoe zooming through snow, mountains, and desert. Over these clips appeared the phrase “Global warming isn’t a pretty SUV ad. It’s a frightening reality.” In another clip, the words “Yesterday’s technology today” appeared over a clip of pumping engine pistons.28 Many of these negative commercials went viral, and could be found everywhere from YouTube to Flickr to specific message boards, such as DemocraticUnderground.org. The Chevy Apprentice campaign highlights many of the risks associated with creating a social media website in-house.
First, the biggest risk that companies face in attempting to create their own social media website is attracting traffic to their newly created websites. GM mitigated this risk successfully by launching their campaign on the popular television show, The Apprentice, and leveraged other forms of marketing to generate awareness of their social media website. Ultimately, over 22,000 people were enticed to participate in the campaign. ChevyApprentice.com generated 2.4 million page views, with the average visit lasting more than nine minutes.29 A truly unique platform has the potential to draw consumers if it is able to create a novel social media experience.
Second, developing a unique social media website is a large investment, as the company is building a new infrastructure for social interaction from scratch. The company must devote significant resources to maintain the website, as they are solely responsible for managing and storing data, enabling security mechanisms, user identity management, and continual upgrades. A flaw in managing any of these aspects has the potential to hamper the overall success of a social media effort.
Third, companies are directly accountable for what happens as a result of their personal social media efforts, as they have the ability to directly control content and how the public can view it. On publicly available platforms such as Facebook, companies can blame negative content posted by consumers on the open-ended nature of these platforms and the lack of control the company has over filtering content. GM did not explicitly state rules for contestants designing an advertisement, which gave consumers the impression that GM was not taking responsibility for the content that is being generated.
Further, they did not screen any of the submissions before it became viewable by the general public. After negative submissions surfaced on the website (Exhibit 5), GM did not remove these commercials, specifically stating that they would “begin screening ads for offensive and inflammatory content but would not remove any material based solely on a negative tone toward the company.”30 Although GM was attempting to maintain their customers’ freedom of speech, they did not account for differences in opinions when deciding what was “offensive,” and were criticized for not monitoring controversial topics in their campaign.
General Motors’ Chevy Tahoe Apprentice Campaign provides an excellent example as to how using in-house social media can backfire and lead to negative consumer reactions towards the brand. The debate still continues as to whether or not the GM campaign should be deemed a marketing failure or success. The majority of reviewers have labelled it a social media disaster, based on the negative feedback generated. In contrast, GM and a select handful of reviewers believed that this campaign was a marketing success. GM was pleased that the website was highly trafficked and that over eighty percent of commercials depicted the Tahoe in a favourable light. Overall, the campaign generated significant buzz, which was precisely what GM hoped to achieve.31
Despite these apparent successes, there are certainly efforts GM could have undertaken to avoid some of the negative reactions. The company could have taken a more proactive approach to prevent negative backlashes by screening ads more carefully before they could be viewed by the general public. Perhaps a campaign intended to engage participants to create videos about “how much they love the Tahoe” would have been a better approach.32 Although this may not have generated as many entries, it would eliminate the participants’ ability to demote the brand and introduce controversial topics. A handful of authentic, homemade video submissions would have been a better way to promote the vehicle and generate word of mouth buzz in a positive manner.
The paper examined campaigns that were successful and unsuccessful in utilizing both established social media platforms or developing platforms in-house. Ultimately, a consensus was not reached regarding which strategy is most effective, as there are numerous considerations to take into account given the context of a company’s current position.
In order to leverage existing social media platforms, the company’s target segment should already be current users of these channels so that quick access to these consumers is gained. Additionally, these consumers must be active users of these platforms so that the company can leverage these users to raise awareness about a specific product or brand. However, managers today should nonetheless recognize that social network marketing is still a novelty.
Thus, many companies hoping to “hop on the social media bandwagon” may opt for using existing platforms as these platforms are inexpensive and familiar to their existing customer base. As the number of companies using existing platforms grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate a product and brand on these platforms. Lastly, opting for this marketing tactic ultimately forces the company to give up control regarding the content that is being posted on these third party websites.
On the other hand, creating and managing an internal social community allows a company to gain both flexibility with the way in which they choose to display information and bring credibility to those information that is being passed onto the consumers. However, if a company chooses to develop an in-house social media platform, attracting consumers towards this platform may prove more difficult since the in-house platform will not be as well-known as traditional social media sites. In-house social media efforts also require greater maintenance and monitoring and the company creating the site holds a greater responsibility for the content posted since they have the ability to control and filter content.
For many companies, social media marketing should be used as an integral part of the company’s strategic marketing plan. However, with so many strategic options available regarding social media, it is essential for the company to acknowledge that different social media tactics are suitable for different companies, products, and target customers. The most successful social media marketing campaign requires a thorough understanding of the company’s customer base and online habits.
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