Can brands be built on social media?

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
September 30 . 4min read

Social media has attracted the ire of brand builders, with the likes of Ritson, Hoffman and Scott all taking turns to pile on. But even before Covid-19 struck, social media use in Australia was increasing – growing at 4.3% per year (or more than 3x the population growth in that period). So with social taking up increasing amounts of Aussie consumers’ attention, how can we harness it to not just drive sales activation – lead generation, direct sales and the like – but to build strong brands?

Social media operators have consistently ignored the principles of brand building.

Well, it’s worth noting that the principles of brand building still stand. To build strong brands we need to tap into ‘system 1’ thinking – leveraging known heuristics and biases to drive unconscious preference. We need to remember that great brands rely on creating a shared experience – what Simler calls a ‘cultural imprint’, and Binet and Field call ‘fame’. We need to balance our investment in (and focus on) long-term and short-term pay-offs. And of course deploy a combination of laser-like focus on penetration (reaching all of the potential buyers in a category not just the heavy buyers) with a relentlessly consistent use of distinctive brand assets (to build memory structures that short-cut our decision making).

The problem is, social media operators have consistently ignored all of the above.

They’ve obsessed over the number of followers or page likes they have – effectively building a small database of loyal, heavy buyers to talk to.

They’ve focussed on engagement – counting and reporting on every like, share and comment, (and most importantly optimising towards them), when we know that engagers are a tiny segment of the potential audience of buyers, and that there is little correlation between clicks and the things that matter (like awareness, recall, and purchase intent).

And they’ve been preoccupied with micro-targeting and the drive towards 1:1 personalisation, which may work well for direct response, sales activation work, but is the opposite of what Simler recommends regarding cultural imprinting and the ‘fame’ required to build brands.

So, what can we do to use social for build building?

Well it’s pretty simple, really – we need to need to avoid what Ritson calls the ‘anti-history rhetoric that is all too common in marketing’ and what Jerry Daykin (in this brilliant take-down of the hype surrounding the Oreo’s ‘You Can Still Dunk In The Dark’ tweet) calls ‘learning that this digital space plays by remarkably similar rules to the old marketing world’. We’ve broken it down into Message, Media and Measurement.

Message – what are we saying?
Getting the message right is about balancing resources and budgets to meet the expectations of social audiences and the way they interact with the channels. To do this we need a balance of content:

‘Hero’ content is designed to drive fame, tell the brand story and connect emotionally with the audience, making them feel something. It usually runs only once or twice a year, and is pushed out to as many of the audience as possible.

Supporting stories help meet the expectation that social audiences have for fresh content whilst allowing us some control of budget and resource. They should reinforce the emotional connection made by the hero content, but require much less focus to deliver.

Distinctive messages are small, regular, reminders of the brand that are ‘always-on’ and delivered at high frequency to continually build memory structures and cement the brand in the mind of the consumer.

Media – where are we saying it, and to whom?
There are three key things to focus on when it comes to media:

Balance reach and frequency – try to consistently reach all buyers in the category. But remember, it’s a balancing act – you may get to the point where the additional cost to reach the last few people will be enormous. Facebook’s studies show a frequency of around two per week on social is where you’ll start to tap out from an efficiency viewpoint.

Harness multi-platform synergy – study after study shows that cross-platform advertising delivers higher efficiency and effectiveness than single channel advertising – and this holds for social media. Mix up the social platforms that you use, the formats you use on each platform, and the creators/accounts your content comes from (eg use influencers and third party partners as well as your brand handles).

Budget allocation – Binet and Field’s 60/40 split has become a mantra, and it’s a good starting point for your social strategies too. This varies from category to category and campaign to campaign, but as a rule of thumb it holds. And if you’re still relying on organic reach? This article should be enough to show you why you’re wasting your time.

Measurement – how will we know if we’re successful?
It’s easy for social marketers to focus on the instant things – likes, shares, followers etc – but those measures don’t really contribute to long-term brand building. So how should we measure success? It’s useful to think about measurement across two parameters: creative and media.

Creative metrics should help to tell us whether we’re delivering an emotional impact, whether we’re driving distinctiveness, whether we’re building fame. So naturally they will include things like brand lift studies, estimated ad recall lift, and thruplay (how far through the content people get – we should be aiming for at least 50%).

Media metrics are all about efficiently – are we we’re reaching enough of our audience, at the right frequency and the right cost? So classic metrics like reach, frequency and CPM come into play. And, of course, we need to measure these over time so that we can track trends.

So what’s the take-out? Well, brand building in social is possible, and can be done effectively if we adjust our approach to address the principles of brand building. That’s not to say that social is the ‘best’ channel for building brands. Most marketers would advocate for a mixture of channels to drive effective brand building – and social could play a role in that. But social may be best suited, depending on the campaign, to operating further along the customer journey, doing the heavy lifting on direct response or lead generation. The take-out, as it almost always is, is ‘it depends’.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
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