Big brands embracing social media


Thinking Digital has been one of the most varied and stimulating events I’ve been to and it’s no surprise there’s been a lot of talk about social media and engaging your consumers.

Alex Hunter (@cubedweller on Twitter), who was also a panellist at the social media masterclass, had a talk of his own at the conference yesterday. Alex is head of web at Virgin Group, and a true social media evangelist. He talked about how he’s reshaping the Virgin Group website and transforming it into a social platform for Virgin’s customers. Much of his talk drew from the Cluetrain Manifesto but wasn’t just a rehash of that; he shared his own thoughts. He emphasised that people don’t want to talk to brands, they want to talk to people – and so Virgin has put people as part of its strategy, helped by the fact it’s one of the few brands already inextricably associated with a person, namely Richard Branson.

Interesting, of all the corporate blogs, Alex regards Digg‘s as the best – not just because it’s written by the guys at the top like Kevin Rose, but because there is a multiplicity of voices and they respond to their fans. But then, as a social media site, Digg know the audience they’re blogging for, and as a new brand they’re more confident in experimenting. It’s harder for non-tech brands, so I’d use Digg as one example of good corporate blogging, but not the only one.

Alex was evangelistic about embracing social media in the business word, and made it clear it works for brands big and small (citing Qype and Zappos as examples). We also got some insights in the new Virgin philosophy – they have “labs”-style projects at Explore Virgin, which has produced Virgin Eye a beautiful visualisation of mentions of their brands on the web (from over 5,000 sources).

This isn’t just dabbling, however. Virgin plan to relaunch their website as a social platform, opening up to allow people to talk about their brand and products and upload their own content. They’ve been savvy to link up with Digg and Facebook Connect to utilise existing social media properties rather than reinvent the wheel. They have also put an impressive effort into research – a year and a half listening, researching and creating before launching their new social platform to make sure it fits the people who use it. It was an impressive example to others: not just in how to embrace social media, but how important it is to know the community you want to build around.