How the Top 50 Brands Use Social Media

Socially Awkward Media

What happens when you invite the world’s top 50 brands to an intimate setting and introduce them to the largest consumer audience ever assembled? Not much, according to new research by A.T. Kearney that analyzes the Facebook performance of Interbrand’s Top 50 Global Brands. Traditional marketers are so bad at understanding social networks that many have all the confidence of awkward teenagers at their first school dance. They’re just not connecting.

On any given day, 175 million people log on to Facebook, the Internet’s largest social media site, opting-in to discuss matters ranging from trivial (where they just ate) to deeply personal (who they are or aren’t in a relationship with and how it’s going). More critically for marketers, these people take the time to indicate which brands, companies and causes they “like” and which they feel compelled to communicate with. If 175 million hearts and minds aren’t enough for you, consider this: In July 2010, Facebook passed the half-billion user mark. If each user were a unique individual, it would mean that one out of every 14 people on earth has a Facebook page.

Apparently that’s not a compelling enough audience for some companies. In a recent A.T. Kearney study of Interbrand’s Top 50 Global Brands, we analyzed 1,115 posts that had 60,570 replies across the top 45 brands, which boasted an aggregate total of 70,016,541 fans (see sidebar: About the Study at the end of the article).

Figure 1: Facebook sites with company-initiated conversations only

We found that five of these companies have no presence on Facebook and another seven—including B2Cs Disney, Gucci, McDonald’s, Louis Vuitton, American Express and Sony— allow only company initiated conversation; that is, the company can “post” or initiate conversations on the brand’s “wall,” but consumers can only reply to the company (see figure 1).1 Perhaps more alarming when you consider the interactive nature of Facebook, we found that only one of the Interbrand Top 50 routed fans to an unfiltered Facebook wall, while the other 44 initially choose to show consumers and fans a filtered selection of company posts only.

A certain irony exists: These world-class brands are using their ostensibly hip Facebook profiles to showcase traditional, time-honored and digitally irrelevant one-way communication (from the company to the consumer), while hiding actual communication from consumers behind a digital curtain.

Grasping the “Social” in Social Media

You might think these companies are trying to engage the consumer, but are simply not very good at it. You would be wrong. Our findings identified 89 percent of consumer replies on company Facebook sites went unanswered. Gucci, for example, did not respond to a single consumer reply within the past three months, while only 11 companies responded to more than one consumer. The notable exception was Philips, which had the highest response rate (nine). Only 15 percent of company responses invited further conversation, although 17 percent managed to address the consumer by name.

It’s hard to understand the rationale behind these findings. Do traditional marketers not take Facebook seriously enough? Are they concerned about ceding uncensored control to their customers? Do they lack the budget or resources to deal with the volume of communication that an effective Facebook site can generate? Returning to the metaphor of the awkward adolescents at the dance, teenagers fail to capitalize on an opportunity because they have too much passion, while branders fail to bring enough passion to social networks.

Indeed, inactivity is the hallmark of companies that don’t quite know what to do with Facebook. Most of the financial firms on the Interbrand Top 50, such as J.P. Morgan and Citibank, have fairly inactive walls and, consequently, limited responses.

Being unresponsive or unengaging translates to “anti-social networking” and is not a winning strategy. Companies that maintain a healthy response rate engage in more interactive discussions with consumers compared to those that do not.

A cursory analysis finds that one of the primary inhibitors to Facebook success is fear about loss of control. Visit any of the Facebook sites of Interbrand’s Top 50 and more than half the time you’ll land on a company-created page. This is the case with Heinz, GE and Nintendo, which all have factual information pages. In 16 other cases, you’ll land on a company-filtered wall identical to the ones operated by McDonald’s and Google. If you want to read what consumers have to say, you must select a different setting on the company wall. Unless you know how to select this option, you’ll be stuck reading only what the company has to say.

The control issues are real. Roughly 27 percent of consumer postings in our analysis were considered “spam” and an additional 8 percent were complaints. Of the posts, 35 percent were complimentary comments, 12 percent were responses to other consumers, and 11 percent were questions.

Overall, 34 percent of the posts were from companies and 66 percent originated from consumers—but this is somewhat misleading. Of the more socially engaged companies, 25 companies in our study had consumer-to-company post ratios in the 3:1 range—three consumer posts for every one company post. These companies include Coca-Cola, BMW, eBay, H&M, Kellogg’s, Pepsi, Heinz, ZARA, NESCAFÉ, Nintendo,, Nokia, Honda, Gillette, Philips, HP, Samsung and L’Oréal Paris. The remaining 20, however, demonstrated nearly a 1:4 ratio between consumer and company commentary.

Social Media: A Difficult Target to Find, Let Alone Hit

The idea of having 14 percent of the world’s population available in a single place ought to be a brand-builder’s dream come true, but the truth is that it is turning into a nightmare for those who —for the first time in their careers—actually have to engage with, not talk at, their customers. Most “branders” it seems, based on their Facebook pages, don’t even know how to begin a productive conversation with their customers.

Rather than develop new techniques for reinforcing a brand through a many-to-many model, most branders opt to treat the real-time, communication-rich, highly interactive forum created by Facebook as though it were a cyber billboard on what we used to affectionately call the information superhighway (see sidebar: Crawling Down the Information Superhighway).

Crawling Down the Information Superhighway

A quick look at the history of social networking helps to illustrate the problem and explain why even Second Life and Twitter have been forced into having Facebook pages.

The problem really began in the pre-digital marketing era of the early 1990s when Don Peppers and Martha Rogers launched their one-to-one marketing concept— a preemptive challenge to the mass-marketing establishment, comfortable as it was with marketing via a one-to-many, non-interactive communications model.

Many branders thought it was a giant step to move from a one-to-many model of brand building to a one-to-one model, a step so large in fact that most of them couldn’t even begin to consider taking it, at least without a good deal of public stumbling. One-to-one marketing, it turns out, is elementary when compared to building a brand through any of the communications we characterize as “social media.”

Without question, the largest challenge to mass marketing came with the dawn of the social networking universe early in this decade. First there was Plaxo, launched on November 12, 2002. The following year saw four more critical launches: Friendster, LinkedIn, Second Life and MySpace (later Myspace). Facebook, the largest of the social network sites, was launched as a full-use site in 2004 and within four years had eclipsed Myspace to dominate the social networking universe.

In our study, only 5 percent of company-to-consumer posts engaged consumers in discussions, while 71 percent of posts were promotional—offering discount coupons, free prizes or other amenities. Canon, for example, uses quizzes and voting mechanisms to promote interactivity with its Facebook visitors. One of its posts reads, “Check out our voting page to find out how our contestants are doing in The New Perspectives Photo Challenge One—Architectural Marvels. You could also stand a chance to win the Canon IXUS 105!”

Promotional posts are popular, as they received the most “likes”—423,000, or 75 percent of all such posts. Informative posts were the least effective, as we tracked just 283 “likes” for these posts and they tended to draw the fewest comments.

A Glimmer of Light at the End of the Tunnel

Some people at least know what they don’t know. Paul Hartwick, senior vice president of communication and public affairs for JPMorgan Chase, told The Delaney Report that “…social media is something that is still hard to get your arms around. It’s hard to understand if it makes sense for your brand. What doesn’t make sense is getting involved just because everyone else is.”2

Assuming success in social media is measured by the number of people who actually engage on a page, we found that the most successful sites used a few simple techniques better than their peers—all of which involve creating emotional connections with consumers: invoking nostalgia, engaging in product discussions, and rallying around common causes.

Invoking nostalgia. Facebook may be the Internet’s newest frontier, but there’s no question that the digital pioneers who cross it like to be reminded of their heritage. Branders can profit from studying organizational practices on Facebook, including observing how a site can grow when its owners learn how individuals want to be connected to each other and their interests and then facilitate that communication.

For example, one of the Internet’s greatest gifts —or worst, depending on your point of view—is the ability to go back and discover people, events and products from earlier stages in life. Consider narrow-interest nostalgia pages such as “East Side of Detroit 50’s to 70’s 7 Mile Rd.-Hayes-Seymour-Chalmers,” dedicated to people who lived in a small section of the Motor City. Or consider the somewhat broader Detroit Eastsiders, a site with more than 4,849 friends who spend much of their online time discussing restaurants, theaters, dances and bands that vanished 30 to 40 years ago.

Challenger brands are quick to pick up on winning social media approaches. On November 2 of this year, Little Debbie, a half-century-old snack cake brand, received nearly 200 responses from its 600,000 Facebook friends when it solicited “Little Debbie traditions.” Coca-Cola and Disney stood out in our study not only because they have the most Facebook fans, but also because they have a deep understanding of how to use nostalgia to their advantage (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Coca-Cola and Disney have the most Facebook fans

Engaging in product discussions. One of the obvious reasons people visit social networking sites such as Facebook is to share—whether that means sharing photos, recipes, ideas or relationships. For companies to make communications a one-way street is the antithesis of the principle behind social media’s success.

Soliciting direct input on new and proposed products is an obvious way to build brand response. This example from Sony is a typical direct approach. A company post reads, “Calling all Foursquare users: Check out our new ‘Check In’ tab to learn more about Sony’s Foursquare specials at select PlayStation® HQ stores! Check in at a PlayStation HQ and tell us what
you think.”

Challenger brands also use this approach. Celestial Seasonings, for example, asks followers to evaluate existing product lines and suggest new flavors or flavor combinations for possible
new products.

People are moved when branders move away from their pitch. For example, rather than just describe the wonders of new telephony technologies, Nokia’s Facebook page asks users what they want to do with a new feature in a new product: “Hi everyone, have you seen the new Own Voice feature for Ovi Maps: It lets you personalize the Ovi Maps voice guidance on your device! So now we want to know: Whose voice will be your first and last choice for this new feature?”

An indirect route is another quick way to generate responses—reaching out to the consumer by providing links to common-interest sites. We found many examples of this, including beauty tips provided by L’Oréal Paris USA and a link on IBM’s page to research published in Technology Review titled “Why China’s New Supercomputer Is Only Technically the World’s Fastest.”

Rallying around common causes. Rallying around a common cause is a variation on the emotional bridge theme. Here’s another Little Debbie example from a November 9, 2010 brand post: “Sunbelt Snacks is part of our family of brands, and more than 21,000 people helped make their National Breast Cancer Month fundraising effort a tremendous success. As a result, they’ll provide the National Breast Cancer Foundation with a check for $25,000! Thanks from all of us at Little Debbie!”

Or consider these two U.S. Veterans Day posts from Harley-Davidson on its Facebook wall. The first post, “Today is Veteran’s Day, and we want to thank all those who have served and are currently serving. Our featured Military rider of the day is Jeremy Kanter (Army) of New Glarus, Wisconsin. Check out his story and all of our Military riders by following the link below or clicking on the Military Tab,” had received 5,097 “likes” and generated 128 comments at last count.

The next post, “A $1 million grant from the Harley-Davidson Foundation is helping Disabled American Veterans (DAV) bring benefits, education, and counseling into the communities of our veterans through the DAV Mobile Service Office (MSO). The DAV MSO program is available free of charge to all veterans and their families and is staffed by highly trained professional counselors,” had generated 4,287 “likes” and 177 comments at last count.

No Conclusions, Just a World of Perpetual Beginnings

Social networks embrace all of the elements that early Internet pioneers and promoters had hoped for: They are interactive. They offer a forum where people can weigh in. And perhaps most important, they provide a way to connect with an almost unimaginably large global community. They are also transparent. What gets “said” in a social network—for better or worse—is immediately “heard,” potentially by the entire planet. Social networks place control of the most powerful communication network in history in the hands of everyday people on a democratic, opt-in basis. And most critically, especially for branders, they are organic. Networks such as Facebook grow, evolve and take on multiple lives of their own in real time. As evidenced by the A.T. Kearney Facebook study, they also seem to stymie the best-laid plans of classically trained one-to-many marketers. The old rules of marketing, branding and corporate communication don’t work on social networks, and the new rules are being written every minute. So stay tuned.

Originally published by AT Kearney

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