What's the point of brands being on social media? Our Senior Research & Insight Director Andre van Loon examines how brands can have a successful presence on social platforms.

An inconvenient truth
It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a brand in possession of a message easily attracts an audience, eager to hear from it whenever possible.

Unfortunately, this vision still holds in many parts of the marketing world, and lots of potentially valuable consumer interaction is lost because of it. 

On social media, there are countless examples of brands communicating to little effect, attracting a handful or no engagements (e.g. likes, comments, shares), or failing to drive traffic to websites or other desired actions.

Also, the related idea that the brand communicates, while the audience receives its messages passively  (the ‘push’ theory of marketing) is alive and well, judging by the number of unaddressed consumer comments on many brands’ social media accounts. 

In short, one inconvenient marketing truth is that many brands fail to engage as fully and fruitfully as they could do with their social media audiences.

So what does a brand need to do to have a successful social media role?

Staying relevant in an uncertain world
To start to answer this question, a brand needs to define its reason for being on social in the first place.

This is all about relevancy: how to become and stay relevant to consumers, basing social media marketing on this acquired understanding.

Now, the concept of linear progress bedevils much writing about social media and technology. In a nutshell, this concept entails predictions about constant improvements. 

For example, social media platforms are forever developing new, sharper functionalities, such as Voice or Artificial Intelligence; becoming more transparent about how they use consumer data; increasingly embracing ethical stances towards problematic cultural and societal issues; and growing in fan/follower size without interruption.

The problem isn’t that these things are necessarily incorrect, but that linear predictions (the future is just like the past, just more so) ignore the potential outsize impacts of the unexpected.

As we noted in our recent Think Forward report, the impact of Covid-19 has led to trends such as ‘the simple life’ (a deeper interest in simple activities and communications); ‘in-feed intimacy’ (ways for people to humanise their digital connections); and ‘open-source creativity’ (more collaborative forms of content creation.) 

These trends have become mainstream gradually and then suddenly; they’ve overtaken previous supposedly unstoppable trends, such as social media chatbots and Voice-enabled communications. 

Nowadays, digital, AI-powered communications that allow for rapid, easy interactions are less talked about; whereas human, authentic communications are at the forefront.

So, becoming and staying relevant to consumers requires a recognition that what communities enjoy, require or demand from brands can develop linearly, but that it can also appear or change suddenly. 

The role for research
Luckily, it’s exactly here, at the crux of the known and the unknown, that social media research can help.

Research can guide the brand in finding its social media role, and anticipate the need for adaptations or renewals of this role. It can do so by investigating audience profiles; the brand values and wider culture; and the category landscape.

Let's take each of these in turn.

Audience profiling
Research is empowered by owned social media analytics platforms and social listening tools, through which it can find out who is currently following a given social media brand. This entails establishing an audience’s demographics (e.g. self-stated age and gender); locations; wider cultural interests (e.g. other pages followed or brands/events talked about on social); and education and professional life (if stated.)

This can be valuable information, painting a picture of the current audience and what it likes to follow or talk about. This information can then allow a brand to tailor its strategic, creative and editorial output, as well as community management style (e.g. through a semantic/thematic analysis of user commentary and brand responses.)

But audience profiling can go further by looking at prospective (rather than actual) audiences. This can be achieved by creating ‘lookalike’ audiences, and investigating these on owned and earned social. 

A ‘lookalike’ audience can be created by taking essential information about a desired audience (a target audience, for example), and then setting parameters around this information on a platform or social listening tool. 

The resulting information can then inform where strategy, creative, editorial or community management could go, based on the target (rather than actual) audience.

If these research methods don’t give enough relevant information, research can also create audience surveys or interviews, or run ethnographic studies. These methods often allow for a more in-depth understanding, frequently sparking creative thoughts about an audience’s needs, wants and motivations.

Brand values
Investigating and defining the brand values - what the brand wants to be known and appreciated for on social media - is another crucial research avenue. Whether a brand has a set of values to be tested and refined in consumer response, or finds itself in need to adapt to new consumer expectations and demands, research can look at how these values are being communicated already, by other brands, influencers, media or communities. 

This can then allow for the brand to find its own space and authentic style of communicating, steering clear of pitfalls and negative responses. Naturally, research is only one part of this, because when it comes to brand values, the brand’s senior stakeholders need to align the findings and recommendations with the larger direction and strategy of the brand.

Research can allow for quick information in an uncertain, volatile world, and make recommendations about course corrections.

Pertinent research methods include social listening, surveying/interviews, competitive and category analysis, but also, more broadly, a recurring investigation of the cultural and societal trends as they are expressed on social media and other channels.

Being valuable means being continuously in-the-know about the most admired values within a community.

Social media category landscape
A keen and up-to-date understanding of the category landscape on social media is the third main task for research in keeping a brand relevant. 

The key question here is knowing the social media space for the brand to settle on, so that it can live on recognisable, ownable terms within a consumer mindset.

This research task can be carried by a category landscape SWOT analysis. What the brand is already good at, from the point of view of positive audience recognitions of its category positioning; where it is weak or threatened; and where its main opportunities are.

A mixture of brand information (e.g. sales, conversions and traffic generated through social media); category brand performances on similar metrics (often available using third-party tools); opinions, attitudes and behaviours regarding the brand and its category (available through qualitative research methods such as social listening, surveys, interviews and the like); and consumer response to competitive product launches or campaigns on social media (positive, negative; indifferent) are all useful research sources.

The SWOT analysis, informed by these multiple and complementary sources, can then be constructed between teams from research (delivering insights about existing, established facts) and Strategy (guiding on the richest, most ownable opportunities.)

As before, this kind of work can never be completed, because it is based on how consumers act within a category landscape, and what they think and feel about it. And such actions, thoughts and feelings can be impacted by elements outside of the category, without warning and rapidly.

Staying ready
To conclude, how a brand should be active on social media is about becoming and staying relevant. Consumer communities can make or break a brand, and the best a brand can do is to listen to, analyse and follow its audiences as closely and often as possible.

But beyond that, and most importantly in my view, audiences themselves often don’t know what they will do, feel, think or say, because the social media landscape and the world around it are uncertain and often unpredictable.

The definition of a brand’s relevance on social media should be conceived of as a process, I believe, rather than as an endpoint.