Brands need to tread carefully when talking to customers through social media, with the latest research showing that most consumers are outwardly hostile to the idea of commercial messaging on the social networking sites they use, but their actual behaviour demonstrating that they are actually willing to engage with brands on these websites, according to Andy Wood, managing director of data marketing firm GI Insight.
Companies therefore need to adopt a carefully considered approach to social media if they are to avoid alienating customers while taking advantage of the opportunities the channel presents. Within a very short time, social media sites have transformed the rules of engagement for brands and individuals alike. They offer companies a growing platform for connecting with a huge swathe of customers and cementing relationships further, while enabling consumers to share information and opinions with their own network of contacts in real time.
Few businesses can afford to put off developing a strategy for taking advantage of social media, but the channel holds risks as well as opportunities and needs to be handled with care. Recent research from GI Insight illustrates just how powerful social media has become, revealing that 75% of the more than 1,000 British consumers surveyed belong to at least one social networking site and that the overwhelming majority of these visit once a week or more. So it is hardly surprising that companies want to capture the huge commercial potential represented by social media users by targeting them through the sites themselves.
However, the research suggests that a heavy-handed approach to commercial messaging on social media would be unwise, with consumers determined to stay in control when it comes to their interactions with brands on social networking sites. And a major part of the commercial appeal of social media - the speed of communication it enables - is also what can make it such dangerous territory for brands, since a criticism or complaint can travel just as fast as an endorsement.
In such a fast-moving environment, it is even more crucial for brands to stay on the right side of consumers, and companies certainly cannot afford to annoy or alienate customers by overstepping what they feel is an acceptable boundary - which will vary from person to person.
At first sight, the research seems to indicate that using social networking sites to approach consumers is likely to have exactly this effect. According to the survey, the overwhelming majority of social media users - 82% - consider commercial messaging an unwelcome invasion that has no place on the sites they use. Just as likely to set alarm bells ringing is the fact that a similar proportion (81%) say that their view of a brand or company would be seriously damaged if it communicated with them directly on social networking sites. Both these findings make it clear that marketers need to take a subtle and cautious approach to social media if they are to avoid alienating the consumers they intend to attract.
However, the picture that emerges from the research is not all doom and gloom. While the risks of taking the wrong approach to marketing via social media are clear, they are counterbalanced by the rewards that can be reaped from an effective and well-designed strategy. While respondents may claim to reject commercial messaging on social media out of hand, this hostility is not borne out by their actual behaviour which reveals more of a willingness to engage with brands.
The majority of the consumers who are active on social media (64%) have in fact invited interactions with brands or companies on the sites they use by 'liking' or 'friending' their pages, and 68% of these people are subsequently happy to receive personalised commercial messages from the companies they have endorsed. The effectiveness of social media pages when it comes to engaging consumers has not gone unnoticed by the companies that have set their stall on key social networks, and many brand pages now routinely attract a bigger audience of potential customers than their corresponding websites.
So consumers are less intolerant of commercial contact than they say they are. However, brands should not take this as an invitation to bombard them with unsolicited messages, since 49% of the consumers who have 'liked' a company's page have later 'unliked' a brand out of irritation at the volume of messages they were receiving. There is clearly a place for commercial messaging on social media sites, but the research indicates that consumers have very specific notions of where the parameters lie - for example, 92% of social media users think that advertising should be kept totally separate from their interactions with friends.
The crucial message for companies is clear: in the world of social media, people are determined to engage with businesses on their own terms, and do not respond well when they feel that a line has been crossed. For companies that stay on the right side of the divide, social networking sites present an opportunity to gather invaluable information on consumer attitudes to their brand - although still only at an aggregate level - and to strengthen relationships with their customers by engaging them in two-way interactions.
Social media has considerable potential as a marketing platform - but primarily when incorporated into a wider individualised marketing approach informed by consumer data. Companies and brands cannot yet - and there are no indicators that this is going to change anytime soon - go to consumers directly with tailored and personalised messages through social media. The survey shows incontrovertibly that any interaction has to be invited by the individual consumer.
Therefore, in the multi-channel, multi-device environment in which brands now operate, it is more important than ever to build relationships with customers which take every type of interaction into account. Communications via social networks must be part of a more informed, broad-based approach that involves traditional direct and loyalty marketing, including email, post, SMS, and telephone.
Once a more entrenched and informed relationship is established - along with a degree of trust in the company or brand - then the consumer will be more welcoming of a range of communications as long as they remain relevant, targeted, personalised, well-timed and not too intrusive.