Social Media and Branding

It’s not any different than it ever was before. Achieving word-of-mouth means making a brand culturally relevant — which requires finding out where your brand intersects with people’s lives, and how you can increase the meaning of your brand to those people. Whether it’s a niche audience or a mass market, how does your brand and its image add value? Trying to understand how people will behave toward your brand in social media is no different from trying to understand how people will behave toward your brand in the real world.

In the end, social media is nothing more than a mirror of people’s real-world behavior (albeit amplified and with extreme ADD). If you’re taking steps to make your brand relevant to people in the real world (which I sure hope you are), then it’s not that big of a leap to figuring out how to make your brand relevant to people in a social media context. Social media should be a valuable tool for helping you answer that billion-dollar question of what will make your brand relevant to people, as well as the platform spreading your brand’s message as you achieve greater relevance. It’s listening and talking, instead of just talking.

Agencies certainly have the talent to listen. Some of the best and brightest are hungry to take on the challenge of building the iconic brands that shape our lives, and would love the opportunity to feed back the voice of the people they are talking to. But the current brand-agency relationship isn’t set up for this task – and, more importantly, isn’t compensated for it. Are agencies set up to have a conversation for your brand, or has a mandate to only be the brand’s mouthpiece crippled agencies from truly activating your brand in social media?

It’s this question that has led many to wonder if brands should be handling the activation of social media in-house. It is a valid point. If it’s true that brands’ participation in social media means much more than simply buying media and blasting the “big idea,” can agencies fill this role?

I believe not only that agencies can, but that they must. Because unless agencies participate in social media, their role as stewards of brands will eventually end — and their greatest fear, a future where their services are nothing more than a commoditized function performed by Google and Microsoft, ( http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/06/22/business/ad23.php), will come true. If your function can be performed by a computer, it will be. Fighting this, rather than focusing on the areas that cannot be done even by the mighty Google’s algorithms, is a losing battle. The future of agencies lies in more than knowing how to get in front of the right people, but also in knowing how to talk and listen to those people to shape a brand and its message.

I wanted to leave you with the following distinction. In one of my favorite conversations over the past couple of weeks, Henry Jenkins, co-founder of MIT Comparative Media Studies, says the following in a piece pointing out why Barack Obama is better built for social media: “Campaigns are very much top down organizations focused on short term results — let’s get this person elected president — while movements are constructed bottom-up with more long-term goals — let’s reshape the American political landscape.” This is the difference between a social media “campaign” for your brand, and a social media movement for your brand. Social media was built for the second. Which is your agency building for you?

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