Yesterday's Social Brands conference, in association with Marketing, indicated that while social media is revolutionising the marketing landscape, with further forays into uncharted territory come new challenges.
The event kicked off with an address by Justin Cooke, chief marketing officer of Topshop, who said: "Social media has seen the line blur between PR and marketing – increasingly we have to do everything.
The blurring of lines has also seen social media become a channel for customer service.
Lars Silberbauer, director of social media at toy group Lego, talked of Twitter’s efficacy in dealing with complaints. "We had a guy on Twitter ranting about how bad our service was," he said. "At the time we had a big incident going on, so our customer services team was busy."
The complainant was posting a succession of negative tweets, including moaning about Lego's call centre hold music.
Silberbauer said: "Then a team member took him out of Twitter's open feed and onto DM instead, where they solved the problem right away because my team has the ability to bypass customer service."
Of course it is not always such plain sailing, and the unpredictable nature of social media means that it is often impossible to predict what lies ahead.
"Every moment is a moment of truth," Silberbauer said. "My team are like a sailboat crew – very agile and trying to find out where the wind is blowing from and where it's blowing to. We're not trying to predict the future, but to figure out what's going on right now."
The notion of social media as an unmapped territory was cause for concern for some marketers. In a session at the conference asking, "Will the ever-evasive ROI formula ever be revealed?", a panel made up of digital marketers argued among themselves, and with delegates, about how ROI could be measured, whether it should be measured, and even what the term actually meant.
Craig Hepburn, global director of digital and social media at Nokia, expressed exasperation at how old-school media measurement was being applied to social.
"What is the value of doing social media?" he asked. "I'm sort of getting tired of being asked. But I do also understand that businesses need to justify cost. It feels like we're always trying to justify it and the biggest challenge for me is that we're trying to apply old thinking to a new undefined medium we don’t understand yet.
But Vincent Boon, chief community officer of mobile network Giffgaff, disagreed. He said: "I get what Craig [Hepburn] is saying, but it's got to be about metrics and measurement."
He cited how the firm had applied analytics to its community data to establish customer churn, and how its customer service costs were proportionally 50% lower than other companies' because "our community is sitting there [on our forums] answering other customers' questions".
Questions about what brands should be doing with social media resonated throughout the day.
Will McInnes, managing director of social consultancy NixonMcInnes, said: "The questions for us are 'What is our content strategy?', 'What goals are we trying to establish?'". He argued that brands should have a solid strategy in place and not just chase Facebook "likes" for the sake of it. "Social is not just a buzz word," he added.
His point about knowing when social is a relevant solution was reinforced by Julia Monro, Marks & Spencer's social media manager, in another session. She said: "It's a fairly obvious point, but coming from within a large organisation, lots of people want us to use social media to talk about what's relevant to them."
She gave an example of the type of request she might receive from within M&S. "[Someone might ask]: 'We're not selling enough jumpers. Can you put something on social media for us?' It's a knee-jerk reaction."
Yet a well-pitched reactive attitude is essential to deal with the real-time nature of social media, according to Jude Brooks, senior marketing manager for social media at Tesco. She talked of how the supermarket has been dealing with the fallout over the horse-contaminated meat recently found in its burgers.
Brooks said: "The horse jokes are still coming thick and fast and there have been lots of comments about how the situation is now 'stable'. But it has been a great example of how integrity and being upfront has worked in what was a difficult situation for Tesco."
Aside from being a means to bat off criticism, social media's financial potential has also been tapped by Tesco. "We calculated that user-generated images we used in a promotion saved us £78,000 in photo-shoot costs," Brooks added. "Occasionally, there's a hard business benefit."
The scale of social media, its openness and the swathe of applications for marketing, are factors that both excite marketers and intimidate them.
Kai Gait, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) digital marketing director admitted that the nature of his business – spanning consumer, healthcare and pharmaceutical – posed a huge challenge.
He said: "We are complex because we have lots of divisions. So when we think about engaging with customers, that gets complicated. On top of that, especially on the pharmaceutical side, there are a huge set of regulations on top of us. The first rule of pharma marketing is that we can't talk about medicines to the public."
But Gait said that GSK was persevering with developing a more cohesive social strategy
"The future for us is that we are always learning" he said. "We're trying to break down silos to see how we're going to get better at social."
Nokia is also striving to up its game, with ever-more marketing budget being allocated to social media development.
Hepburn said: "When I first came onboard there was a small budget. But it's been built up in year two quite significantly and there’s a vision of where we want to get to."
"Vision" is perhaps an inappropriate word for a sector that is still feeling its way in the dark within the realm of social. According to Carlsberg Group’s media and digital director, Jakob Holm Kalkar, the sheer number of definitions of what social media means to marketers is confusing.
"To us, social is about sharing and if you look at all the definitions, it’s the only word that pops up again and again," he said in a presentation towards the end of the day. "We have commercial content. But more important is creative content not necessarily about the brand, but that is relevant to the brand."
Concluding the day’s proceedings, Bruce Daisley, UK director of Twitter, agreed that for marketers, relevance is key. "The space for brands to play in is the intersection between people’s passions and their interests," he said.
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