Ask a marketer what social media is good for and the most common response you are likely to hear is that “it’s good for branding.”
Or to put it another way: “I don’t have a clue.”
“Branding” is a vague term that can cover anything from making more sales to letting people know about your product. It sounds powerful, the sort of thing you really should be doing for a company, but it does not have a specific goal. The term is useful only because social media’s other benefits are so weak.
I will say it over and over: Social Media does not deliver value; it only enhances it.
Social media is not the best way to build an email list. (Websites do that better.) It is not particularly strong at advertising. (Earlier this year, GM closed a $10 million account claiming that the site’s ads brought no benefits.) And as for customer service, how many complaints can you really answer on Twitter — and how many would you want to answer publicly?
But that does not mean that social media sites have no use — or even are not useful as branding tools. Social media does do an excellent job, for example, at cementing relationships between otherwise faceless companies and individuals. No advertising or marketing channel can do that as well.
And the sites themselves provide pretty good examples of when branding works and what brands are likely to say about themselves.
That is because the top social media sites are both successful businesses and terrible brands… right down to their choice of names.
Facebook is Not a Bar of Soap
Nobody creating a social media site today would think of calling it “Facebook” let alone “The Facebook.” A name so linked to an old format and suggesting such limited content would never have passed any marketing company discussion.
Twitter was originally known as “twttr.” (The first ever tweet was made by founder and now-CEO Jack Dorsey, who wrote “just setting up my twttr.”) That is both unpronounceable and practically unwriteable.
One of the first social media successes, sold to AOL in 2008 for $850 million (then sold off two years later for $10 million), was Bebo. Asked what the name meant, the founders Michael Birch and his wife Xochi Birch suggested, rather hopefully, “blog early, blog often.”
As brands, none of those names tells audiences anything. They do not tell stories or appeal to a niche in the way that “Dove” soap or “Old Spice” does.
And they do not need to.
Social Media does not deliver value; it only enhances it.
Branding is important in crowded markets filled with identical products. When a shelf contains 30 different bars of soap all of which will do the job of removing dirt, it is the name and the story the marketing company broadcasts that determines who buys which bar. Women looking for skin that feels as soft and pure as a pile of white feathers will choose Dove. Men who want to feel macho and witty will choose the newly re-constructed brand in Old Spice.
But social media sites themselves do not face that kind of competition. They sell on their communities. If your friends are on a site then the quality of the site’s features does not really matter. Google+ is a much better product than Facebook, but Facebook is good enough to keep its audience and no branding is going to change that.
It is a lesson that users of social media need to bear in mind if they are hoping that Facebook and Twitter will help to strengthen their brand.
If their product is unique then they can think more about service than branding. And if they are going to brand through social media, then the story that will always come across most strongly is that this is a company that is friendly, welcoming, and available.
As a brand message that is not very unique. But it is powerful and it is delivered best through social media. Social Media does not deliver value; it only enhances it. Did you notice the subliminal message?