Hardly a month goes by without news of yet another niche social network creating a diversion from Facebook and Twitter. But what potential do they really offer to brands?
Last month, Honda launched a page and campaign on Pinterest. The up-and-coming social media site works like a virtual pinboard, where users share images and videos with friends and followers. Honda's activity, which it has dubbed 'Pintermission', promoted its CR-V model and included a $500 incentive for users to get out and visit some of the places they were 'pinning' about. Retailer Target also created a Pinterest page to promote its fashion lines and has pinned more than 50 images so far across four boards.
These are just some examples of how brands are tapping into a new wave of social media networks. Instagram, the highly addictive photo-sharing app for iPhone, has been a hit with users and attracted a successful $1bn bid from Facebook last month (see interview, page 5). It plans to use Instagram's products to enhance its own photo-sharing offer. Smaller still but gaining ground is Path. This time the metaphor is a journal - designed as a mobile app, the network allows friends to share thoughts and images as they travel with their smartphones.
For those who feel that creating a journal is a bit too much like hard work, there is the opportunity to get competitive with Draw Something, an online game.
Many of these social network newcomers may be less than two years old, but they have grown their user base at a phenomenal rate. Draw Something has around 14m users and, according to figures published by Experian Hitwise, the popularity of Pinterest has exploded in the past year. In March the site welcomed 5m visitors in the UK, compared with just 50,000 a year earlier. Globally it has just under 11m users.
Of course, all these user numbers are dwarfed by the daily traffic recorded by Facebook and Twitter, but as Heather Healy, head of social media at digital agency Sticky Eyes points out, niche operators can provide real opportunities for brands to engage directly with consumers. She cites the example of Pinterest. 'We work with a US-based fashion retailer that also has operations in the UK. In the US, Pinterest is the single largest driver of traffic to its site. In terms of encouraging product sales, Pinterest is more effective than Facebook or Twitter,' she says.
Pinterest: brands are attracted to the visual nature of the site and the opportunity to reach a wide audience
Pinterest is essentially a visual channel - part of its appeal in Facebook's eyes. Users share videos and pictures on Facebook but the emphasis to date has been very much on conversation. On Pinterest, users (including brands) are pinning images and videos. As such it is a very product-friendly space.
It was this visual factor that attracted holiday company Unique Home Stays to the platform. A marketer of luxury and unique holiday accommodation, imagery is a big part of our sell, and a site such as Pinterest, which allows eye-catching images to become viral, is great for us,' says marketing officer Rhianna Morton.
She adds: 'In the short time that we've been using the site, we've found that our images have been shared, repinned and, thankfully, credited time and time again, reaching a far wider audience than traditional platforms would.'
Pinterest's audience is currently dominated by women, a demographic that has made it particularly attractive to fashion and lifestyle brands. However, that is not to say that other sectors can't get in on the act, as shown by Honda's activity. And earlier this year, Printed.com - an online printing service - ran a competition asking customers to come up with designs for Faberge eggs.
'We chose Pinterest because it had been getting a lot of publicity and it seemed like an ideal platform to enable our design community to post their ideas,' says Alex Harrington-Griffin, partner manager at Printed.com.
He adds: 'The objective was to involve designers and we succeeded in doing that. We got a very strong reaction with people pinning and sharing designs.'
Instagram's marketing potential also straddles the consumer and business markets. A major part of the app's appeal lies in a collection of filters that can transform a picture from mundane snap to an arresting piece of instant artwork. It can even make a cup of coffee interesting, so it should be no surprise that Starbucks asks customers to post their Instagram images to its site.
Meanwhile, Draw Something enables brands to advertise directly to players of the game, which involves users guessing names based on images created by fellow players.
But, as Tom Malcolm, head of consumer at digital agency Diffusion, argues, perhaps the greater opportunity lies in developing branded, themed versions of the game.
So is now the time to look beyond Facebook and Twitter and embrace the newcomers? Tom Huxtable, chief executive of social media monitoring company Engage Sciences, urges caution. 'What you have to remember is that Pinterest still has a long way to go,' he says. 'It has been generating a lot of interest but the average consumer in the UK hasn't heard of it yet.'
Swings and roundabouts
So there is a dilemma for marketers. On the one hand, there are exciting new platforms and channels, each with a base of enthusiastic users. On the other, this is uncharted territory. Some of the new players may simply fizzle out or get swallowed by competitors. Others might continue on a growth curve and become market leaders. Nobody really knows which platform will capture the collective imagination next.
The question for brands, then, is: do they invest time and money in campaigns around emerging channels, or hold back to see what happens?
'Building an audience on any social media platform takes time and it can be difficult, so you run the risk of investing in something that could simply fizzle out,' says Giles Palmer, chief executive of social media monitoring company Brandwatch. 'On the other hand, as we saw with Facebook in the early days, brands that are early adopters often do very well.'
Mark Higginson, director of social media at icrossing, says the answer is a strategy based on content rather than specific social media platforms. 'If you develop something for every conceivable social media channel you get into the position where all you are doing is spinning plates rather than pursuing a coherent strategy,' he says. 'Start with a creative idea and use the channels that are most appropriate to it.'
Or, to put it another way, if it makes sense for a business to sell itself through strong images or videos, then the natural next step is to start a conversation through platforms that support that strategy. For a brand with strong images or where these are key to its marketing, Pinterest is a means to feed content out and hopefully watch it go viral.
Content is only part of the equation, however. As Higginson adds, the brand - or the agency - has to understand each user group. In a social media setting, content and approach have to fit the conversation, and expectations, of the users.
According to James Poletti, head of strategy at agency Bounce Digital, there is also scope to use some of the new platforms as tools to feed into an existing internet presence. He cites the company's recent work with retailer Topman on a virtual scrapbook dubbed 'Control Platform'. 'The platform draws on a number of social media channels. For instance, we use Twitter to generate content and Facebook to publish it,' he says. Recently, Instagram has also been used as a means to pull in pictures from contributors.
The social media landscape is constantly in flux and the sale of Instagram will probably inspire yet another wave of smart digital entrepreneurs to try out fresh ideas. Assessing each new platform's potential is never going to be easy - we will have to wait and see if today's hot prospects will still be here in a year's time, let alone longer.
BRAND VERDICT - Graeme Boyd social media manager, Xbox
'We've been adopting a watch-and-wait approach regarding investment in new social media networks. Return on investment is very important to us and we have a policy of focusing our resources on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter - where we know we can engage with our audience,' says Graeme Boyd, social media manager at Xbox.
Pinterest is on the radar, not least because of its rapid growth, and Boyd acknowledges that it has got an interesting demographic: in the US, the majority of users are women. In the UK, 56% are male and its audience is younger. He also notes the appeal of Pinterest to fashion brands, but says there are questions from the perspective of Xbox. 'I have a Pinterest account but I'm struggling to find reasons to keep going back,' he says.
Although smaller than Pinterest, Path is more intriguing for Boyd. 'It combines some of the best aspects of Facebook with the location-based functionality of (mobile-based social network) Foursquare and the picture sharing of Instagram,' he says. Path is a closed API, but a partnership with Nike could be the forerunner of more brand activity.
Boyd sees Instagram as one of the most cost-effective channels for brands to experiment with emerging social media, and says Draw Something 'is doing very well financially, but there could be further opportunities to integrate brand content with gaming'.
And don't be too quick to write off Google+. 'The hangouts (video conferencing) are fantastic, although not many brands are using them yet,' says Boyd.
SOCIAL MEDIA STARS THE NEXT GENERATION
The sleeping giant of social media. Google claims around 170m users for its service and few people think that the company will fail in its bid to create a rival to the big social media players. It has a limited UK user base at the moment, but its advanced means of managing friends and followers has an appeal to corporate users.
Now part of the Facebook empire, Instagram is a consumer picture-sharing app, but that simple description disguises its potential value to marketers. Early-adopting brands have used the app to encourage customers to share pictures of products.
Currently generating a huge amount of interest among brands and marketers, particularly those who have visual imagery at the centre of their campaigning strategy. It still has a relatively low profile in the UK, but the numbers are growing rapidly.
An addictive online gaming app that has generated more than 50m downloads to date. It is funded by advertising and there are clear opportunities here for marketers to get involved.
A self-styled online journal aimed at smartphone users. It is currently a more personal experience than Facebook, with just 2m users and a focus on communication with close friends.
FACEBOOK 'WE LOVE COMPETITION - IT KEEPS US REALLY FOCUSED'
Arif Durrani, group news editor of Brand Republic, talked to Carolyn Everson, V-P of global sales, Facebook, on her recent UK visit.
Was the Instagram acquisition a defensive move for Facebook?
I can't talk much about it because it's in the midst of review. It's a very important strategic move for us. Photos are incredibly important to Facebook, with 250m uploaded every day.
Do you feel threatened by Google+?
We like the competition, in all sincerity. It keeps us really focused on what we are doing. We focus exclusively on social, and thinking about how to make sharing easier and more seamless. We think about how to make our product experience more relevant to our customers. Competition is healthy and, frankly, what it says to us is they are seeing a similar view of the world, which is that the web is being rebuilt around people.
Does any UK brand activity on Facebook stand out?
In the UK, Burberry has developed one-to-one personal relationships, as opposed to being a brand that was a little bit distant. It is an accessible brand, but still a prestige one, with an extraordinary fan base (of more than 10m people). It publishes excellent content - its Timeline page is visually engaging. Burberry really gives the benefit to fans, letting them see new products ahead of time, showing runway videos for people who can't get to a show.
It launched a fragrance last year to its Facebook fans first. More than half a million people requested the sample of the fragrance, and when it came out, sales were up about 96% in that category for Burberry.
O2 is really thinking about customer acquisition and relationships. It is taking advantage of our premium product as well as Reach Generator and is seeing significant increases in what we call Ptat - people talking about this. That's a really important measure.
Is there an ingredient to successful brand campaigns on Facebook?
How much the CMO has influence at the board level is definitely a factor. The Burberry campaign was very, very successful and it was ingrained all the way from the CEO down. When we see that level of interest and passion from the CEO, the CMO and chief creative officer, you really have a great recipe for how to take advantage of Facebook as a brand-building platform.
What's your key message to marketers?
We think of Facebook as a new marketing platform; it's changing fundamentally the way consumers are discovering content, and therefore the marketer can utilise that in really interesting ways. The CMO can advocate how to use Facebook as a business transformation platform. 'How do we fundamentally change the way we do business?' That puts the CMO into a board-level conversation.
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