Brand presence strategy in the social web era

In my last post we looked at trending showing the destination web is in decline, and we are well and truly entering the era of the social web. Simply stated, over the last three years fewer people are going to destination websites, and more people are spending more time on social networks.

Now we’re going to look at three strategies brands are employing to ride the trend, in order of escalating ‘commitment’ to social spaces vis-à-vis destination sites:

  1. Syndicating
  2. Integrating
  3. Replacing

Before we get started, a couple of notes:

  • These strategies are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, at least in the near term they are best employed in combination. Syndication could also be considered a light-weight version of ‘replacing’.
  • This post is not about what you can do on social networks, e.g. discussing crowdsourcing vs social currency vs customer co-design. What we’re looking at here is simply the shifting balance of where a brand’s web presence ‘lives’.

Strategy #1: Syndicating destination site content to the social web

The most popular approach to date for dealing with the rise of the social web has been content syndication. Every brand manager or agency exec has heard at one time the immortal phrase “we need to put our commercial on YouTube”, but obviously there can be a lot more to it than that.

The basic premise is if you are creating valuable content and services, you will be doing a service to your potential audience (as well as your brand) by making it as easy for your audience to get to it as possible.

One example of a brand doing it well is Kraft. If you are interested in getting recipes from their site, they make it as easy as absolutely possible to get them wherever and however you want:

Kraft Mobile Recipes.jpg

Kraft Mobile Recipes-1.jpg

You have your pick of channels, from email, RSS, mobile sites, widgets, and iPhone apps. They’ve made a clear decision that with the wealth of recipe sites out there, and to compete they need not to “hoard” the content on the site but rather make it available as freely as possible.

Kraft.jpg

Maybe this concept seems obvious already, but remember it’s replacing the powerful “sticky site” strategy that has dominated for years.

Strategy #2: Integrating social features into destination sites

The next option for brands in riding the social wave is to integrate social features directly into destination sites.

This is also not a new concept, brands have been trying to create their own community spaces for years with varying degrees of success. However powerful new tools like Facebook Connect are allowing brands to tap into the power and scale of existing social networks.

For example, Ben and Jerry’s has made their product section a collaboration with their customers, allowing ratings, comments and declaring yourself a “Fan” of flavours via Facebook Connect.

Mozilla Firefox.jpg

If you become a fan of a flavour you can post your comment directly to your Facebook wall as well. This becomes promotion for the brand directly in the user’s stream, driving more traffic back to the brand site via the social web. In effect you are mitigating the drop in destination web traffic with the help of the very thing causing the slide.

Mozilla Firefox-3.jpg

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Facebook | Geoff Northcott.jpg

Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook says that “sites that use Facebook Connect have seen increases of 30% to 200% in site registrations and 15% to 100% in the number of reviews and other user-generated content.”

Strategy #3: Replacing destination sites with presence on social platforms

Social syndication and integration should by now be requirements for most brand sites, obviously using platforms and channels that best fit the goals of the brand and behaviours and preferences of its audience.

However some brands are presumably looking at graphs of their declining site traffic, and the boom in social sites, and asking the question “do we even need a website at all?”

This leads us to the latest way some brands are dealing with the shift to the social web: ‘Replacement’.

This approach definitely is not for the faint of heart. It’s also probably not advisable for many brands at this point. There are still a good many reasons to have brand sites, and most of them still get millions of visitors.

However the question about what should live on brand sites and what should live on social platforms is definitely a valid one, and here’s a few examples along the spectrum.

Skittles

Yes, we are starting at the deep-end. Skittles turning its homepage into a Twitter redirect is still our high-water benchmark for turning brand presence over to social media spaces, and won’t be surpassed soon because of the predictably ill-fated initial results.

Skittles.com_ Chat the rainbow. Taste the Rainbow..jpg

It’s been called everything from visionary to a stunt and a gimmick, and maybe ultimately it is all of those things. Although the initial Twitter default was quickly pulled down, it’s worth noting that months later Skittles.com is still primarily a social redirect. Except now the default destination is Facebook.

Axe (Lynx)

As another example of the social bookmark strategy, check out Unilever men’s deodorant brand Axe’s new site:

THE AXE EFFECT-1.jpg

It isn’t a site as much as a collection of redirects.

Links to Axe on Facebook and Youtube to get opt-in brand entertainment. A Wikipedia page for more information. A link to buy the products on Drugstore.com. And that’s about it. Again, probably not the right approach for most brands, but for our purposes it’s an interesting object study in brand site minimalism, taking full advantage of the social web.

Pepsi

For a less dramatic example that is likely to be more indicative of near-term shifts, check out the new Pepsi.com:

Pepsi.jpg

Links to Pepsi’s Facebook and YouTube spaces take up two of four most prominent spaces on the page, and there’s another big “Find us on Facebook” tout in the bottom-right.

Maybe we are already taking this for granted. However if you take a step back it represents a huge shift away from the rich, “sticky” destination experience built in the hopes people will come back. Instead, we are building out our social spaces in the hope that people will subscribe or fan us where they already are, and ‘like’ our content so their friends see and interact with it too.

What all this means

As this trend away from destination websites and towards social spaces continues to gain momentum, here are some of the corresponding shifts in brand behaviour and activity we’re likely to see:

1. Increasing investment in social media spaces

Social media has to date been considered an experimental line-item for most brands, with limited funding and support. As brands direct their visitors towards social media spaces or look to engage them there in the first place, this is going to change in a hurry.

That said, it will not change nearly as quickly as it should. Just as funding for digital brand activity has lagged the audience’s own shifts in attention and behaviour to digital channels, so will it here. This obviously creates an opportunity. Brands that get it before the rest will reap the rewards.

2. Shift from paid media to social currency that earns media

The next shift is a supplementation, or in some cases replacement, of paid media efforts with content and utility intended to stoke conversation and be shared with friends in these social spaces.

3. Shift from low-frequency, one-message campaigns to high-frequency, targeted interaction

The ubiquitous, mass awareness campaign definitely still has it’s place. However the shift towards social spaces requires a shift in mindset and communication style as well. It means brands can’t just survive on one big static brand expression delivered in blasts that has typified the campaign era. Instead they need to supplement this with an approach adapted to the social media era, featuring many interactions and engagements spread over time.

4. Shift to reactivity, freshness and participation in culture

As the destination web becomes the real-time web, brands will need to become much more agile in order to be relevant. They will need to participate, contribute and stoke conversation on-the-fly. They will need to be acive participant in culture rather than simply a co-opter and long-armed influencer.

Last thoughts

It’s important to make the point that the fundamental goals and objectives of marketing remain the same. Marketers will want to create a connection with consumers, to differentiate themselves positively from their competitors, encourage advocacy and word of mouth. They’ll want to do this in order to increase category size or share within categories, or to encourage existing customers to buy more or more frequently. Those business fundamentals aren’t going away.

What’s changing is the approach. What worked in the broadcast era, and even the destination web era, does not necessarily work in the social web era. And the toolset and expertise required in this new world is much more vast and diverse than any marketer would’ve imagined in the last 50 years.

However the opportunities are there, to create real connections with your customers. And yes, if you do it right you can enable and encourage them to spread the word of your products, services and experiences on your behalf.

So which approaches are you looking at? And where might things go next?

And a couple of parting questions that I’m wondering about right now. Facebook has grown so fast because that’s where the social action was happening. This has sucked attention away from destination sites.

However now that social experience is being enabled on destination sites via Facebook Connect and similar services from Google and Twitter, are we likely to see the traffic slide on destination sites start to flatten out for those brands who use these tools? And what do you imagine the balance of traffic between brand sites and brand presence on sites like YouTube, Facebook, etc will be by 2010?

For more on where are things are heading, check out Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester’s summary of his Five Eras of the Social Web report. His advice for brands around not hesitating, preparing for transparency, connecting with advocates and “shattering” your corporate website is spot on.

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