Brand Building and Social Media - Beyond Communication to Changing the Marketplace

By David Aaker

Marketers are attracted to social media to communicate their offerings and programs in large part because traditional mass media lacks coverage and is increasingly fragmented, expensive, complex, and ineffective. Social media is the apparent salvation, even though it is difficult to manage, in part because the lack of control is frightening.

However, there is another use of social media. It can augment the offering to expand the value proposition. In fact, if the social media augmentation is compelling, it can change what people buy. In effect, it can create a new category or subcategory. For many customers, brands that lack this augmented offering will not be considered relevant.

In my latest book, Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant, I discuss evidence that shows that the only real way to achieve meaningful sales growth is to create new categories or subcategories. In contrast, engaging in brand preference competition in established categories or subcategories usually does not move the needle, even with aggressive marketing budgets.

So how can social media augment the offering to create a new category or subcategory? There are a variety of ways, but the end goal should be to create a community that would provide not only functional benefits but also emotional, social, and self-expressive benefits. To make the ideas concrete, let's consider an example.

One of my favorite social media brands is Dell. The Dell social media effort includes:

· IdeaStorm. One of Dell's signature efforts is the much-imitated IdeaStorm, whereby a user can post ideas for Dell to consider. Ideas can be around a themed session, such as identifying "green" ideas with a corporate responsibility theme. Users can also view the ideas of others, vote for or against ideas, and see how the best ideas are progressing through to market. Dell has received more than 13,000 suggestions from which 430 ideas have come to fruition.

· Blogging. Dell has 10 different blogs, including Direct2Dell - where users can communicate directly to Dell - and blogs that feature interest areas with respect to products, issues, and applications, such as Inside Enterprise IT, Washington Report, and Education.

· Groups. Dell sponsors five communities around topics like digital entertainment, gaming, small and medium business, being new to communities, and the Dell Management Console, which allows a peek into the future of Dell technology.

· Owners' clubs. There are three owners' clubs around Streak, Alienware, and XPS, where users can share experiences.

· Support forums. Dell's support forums allow users to ask questions and get answers around a dozen offering areas, such as mobile devices, peripherals, and laptops. The resulting database has wide applicability and provides a useful reference.

· Twitter. With multiple Twitter handles, Dell has more than 1.5 million followers, and its Twitter deals have created more than $1 million in revenue. Dell is one of the few firms that has been able to estimate Twitter’s ROI.

· Facebook. Dell's active Facebook effort has nearly 200,000 fans.

· YouTube. Dell has nearly 4,000 YouTube subscribers.

Note that the Dell program has eight different types of social media efforts. That means Dell can interact in whatever way the participant finds most comfortable, rewarding, and useful. The various vehicles enjoy enormous synergy, as one feeds and supports others. The multiple variants of the blogs, groups, clubs, and support forums all allow the participants to focus on an interest area, so that the content is always relevant to them. It is not just one Dell social site.

Note also that the program activates the major motivations to listen - namely to get useful information, become part of a shared interest group, and connect with a knowledgeable and prestigious (in their setting) group of people. It also activates the motivations to talk - namely to help people, express neighborliness, demonstrate knowledge, and participate in a social group that offers security and friendship.

To look at the Dell programs as technical efforts to communicate and provide product support is to miss the much bigger strategic opportunity. For many, they have actually changed what is being bought, changed the category, or changed the subcategory. It is no longer computer hardware and software - it is hardware and software surrounded by a responsive, computer-based support system, and even more important, connected to a social network, providing social, emotional, and self-expressive benefits, as well as functional benefits. It is a place to belong and is a source of support and information.

Another computer seller that has not provided such a linked social network may not be a relevant option. Even if a competitor develops such a network, attracting a user who is already embedded into the Dell system may be next to impossible.

The implications are enormous. There is now a different view of loyalty and barriers to competitors. Loyalty is now tied up not on the computer system working well and providing a good usage experience but to the active social experience interactions with Dell, other users, and still others who are involved and participate. A successful design and implementation of the social media experience will result in loyalty barriers that competitors will find hard to overcome.

To create a new category or subcategory with barriers to competitors, the social experience needs to be managed and resourced. It needs to be designed to be effective, staffed with enough people to be responsive, and involve the type of people that will be concerned, friendly, and competent. And the ROI is likely to be so high - especially if you consider the lifetime customer value - that it will be impossible to overinvest in it.

Follow Dave on Twitter: @davidaaker and visit his blog at davidaaker.com


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