The Key to Marketing in the Social Era: Understanding Digital Culture

It’s been 10 years since the Web 2.0 conference launched, ushering in the golden age of the social era. Back then, it was all MySpace MySpace MySpace, but there were plenty of emerging social tools: FlickrDelicious, Blogs, Wikis. People excitedly buzzed about folksonomies and the long tail. TechCrunch was run by one guy and had less than 500 readers.

Now, it’s commonplace. 1.28 Billion people are on Facebook alone, which represents nearly 20% of the world’s population. And it’s pretty much a given that every business needs some sort of social presence. To not have one would be as ludicrous as not having a phone nowadays.

This is super exciting to me. I still recall the day I realized the social web had hit a tipping point. I had flipped on the television in my hotel room to listen to while I got ready and the anchor, Rick Sanchez, said live on CNN, “As you follow this story, tweet me at @ricksanchezcnn and I’ll address your questions on air.” I recall stopping in my tracks and saying, “Holy wow. It’s happening,” out loud.

The tip into going mainstream was swift, which was incredibly validating for those of us who had been part of it for so many years. However, in the haste to adopt digital and social, something fundamental was lost.

Digital Culture Defined

cul·ture – noun – \ˈkəl-chər\ : the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

Brands have taken up the tools of the social web with gusto. This is an incredibly smart move. No previous communication medium gave them the ability to get so close to so many of their customers and potential customers. Brands can measure reactions in real-time, they can measure public response, they can find out more about who their customers are, what they love and why they buy. Social media gives brands all of the research tools merged with the promotional tools and it’s a fraction of the price of previous platforms.

But there is an issue in this adoption: brands have happily adopted the tools, but they are slow in adopting the core values. The culture.

Adopting social tools without understanding the culture of the people using them is like picking up a violin and attempting to play Bach’s Chaconne perfectly, then wondering why everyone is running from the room holding their ears and crying.

The technology is moving quickly, but the approach to customers is not. Most brands are still thinking in terms of “mass”, “brand impressions” and “owning the conversation” even though the tools themselves are built for niche/personalization, listening, and open conversation.

Anyone can learn how to use the tools – they are, in fact, designed to be simple to use – but it takes more time and self-reflection to understand the culture. And that is key because there is a culture – or, rather, multiple cultures – that have grown and been catalyzed through the democratization of the web.

The web isn’t about the tools or the technology, it is about the culture.

Let me give you an example: YouTube Beauty Vloggers vs. Beauty Brands on YouTube.

The top 25 beauty and style YouTubers – most of whom film in their bedroom on a standard camera or their laptop and spend nothing on advertising – receive 2,600% more comments on their content than content produced by brand channels. The same report (Pixability), cites that YouTube beauty vloggers control 97% of the conversations around beauty topics.

In traditional channels, spending more money on production and boosting meant more views, but on YouTube and other social video channels, it’s not about the money or the production quality. Instead, it’s about things like accessibility, authenticity and listening to their audience. The YouTubers deliver the content their audience wants to receive, not content they want to push.

People don’t only watch Kandee Johnson or Gigi Gorgeous (some popular YouTubers), they interact and identify with them. They are regular people (more or less) with struggles and human flaws. Any one of their fans can access them. Their comments and questions will likely be read and answered, and their feedback is incorporated into future videos. Nobody is filtering Kandee’s answers. She can be raw and honest. She can admit a mistake. She can apologize.

The Changing Expectation of Accessibility

We may be fascinated (and often too fixated) on celebrities, but we are connecting with this new breed of influencer. We may aspire to be like celebrities Beyoncé or Katy Perry, but we trust YouTubers Miss Glamorazzi and Bebexo.

This is a fundamental cultural change that is a direct result of the social web. In the 90’s, we wouldn’t have dreamed that celebrities would be approachable. They were larger than life, surrounded by bodyguards and we followed their stories through the paparazzi. That’s changed. Now we demand to connect on some human level. We want them to be human and approachable. We celebrate their flaws.

We fall in love with Jennifer Lawrence when she trips up the stairs or makes goofy jokes. We want to be Anna Kendrick’s BFF when she cusses on twitter and says self-deprecating things. The amateur YouTuber celebrity is even more approachable. She has her bad days and rants and cries on her channel. She shoots and edits her videos from her bedroom.

“I want them to know that I’m human, that I have flaws, and I want to be relatable, which is why I still film in my bedroom and haven’t upgraded to a studio. I want them to feel like we’re having a sleepover.” MissyLynn (300k subs) via Racked

She addresses the audience like she’s answering a phone call from her bestie:

“Hi guys!” and “Heyyyyy!”

Today’s influencers are influential BECAUSE they are approachable, relatable and they connect with their audience. And people love them, warts and all.

When we are talking about digital first and social strategy, we aren’t talking about the web or mobile or any of the tactics or tools themselves. We’re talking about something much more fundamental:

Digital first is cultural, not technical. Social is an approach, not a platform.

If brands want to totally take advantage of the new media, they need to learn the culture, not just the tools. And there are some fundamental new rules of digital culture.

The New Rules of Digital Culture

So, then, what does this mean for your brand? What does this new culture look like? What are the new beliefs and customs you should be adapting to?

The good news is that the new rules are fun to follow. The bad news is that digital culture is almost opposite to brand culture, so adopting them will take some time and leaps of faith. However, there are quite a few case studies that underscore the effectiveness of cultural change leading to incredible success in social and digital, which should reassure anyone venturing into this change.

RULE#1: THERE IS NO MASS

Was there ever a mass audience? Was there ever a time when everyone (or the majority of people) had one thing in common that you could target?

Sure there are some commonalities you can count on. Most of us have a nose, and many of us get the occasional cold, yes. But those colds act differently and we react differently to the medicines available. A large number of people buy toilet paper, that’s true. But common stuff aside, we are pretty different.

And we are getting pretty comfortable with the notion that we should be recognized for our unique needs. As personalization becomes a core feature of many of the tools we use online, we are coming to expect it everywhere else. Personalized music recommendations, personal shoppers, personalized skincare programs, custom ordered vehicles, custom ordered trench coats, the list goes on. In a world we are leaving a digital fingerprint everywhere we go, we are expecting more and more recognition that we aren’t like everyone else.

The companies that try to appeal to the masses get ignored. It’s when a company appears to speak to you personally that you sit up and take notice.

Take, for example, Nature Valley. It could be argued that a large number of people eat snack bars. Many of us get peckish and need a snack to tide us over until the next meal and many of us are too busy to make something nutritional to snack on. Snack bars appear to be a solid solution.

Nature Valley was kind of like any brand with a presence on social media trying to create content with a broad appeal, hoping that would move the needle and sell more snack bars. They mostly focused on the outdoorsy, adventurous brand voice, which seemed to have some, but limited appeal to that audience.

Then one day, Jess Wangsness, the Community Engagement Specialist that runs the Twitter account noticed some fans tweeting about buying Nature Valley and watching/discussing anime. Wangsness knew a bit about anime, so she decided to comment from the @naturevalley account, which led to more anime fans tweeting with @naturevalley. When Wangsness showed her chops and named a ‘insider’ anime director (someone only a person who ‘got’ anime would know), the conversation ballooned. [ref: Buzzfeed]

Next thing she knew, the anime community started photoshopping Nature Valley bars into all sorts of anime screencaps and tweeting them out. The more they tweeted, the more Nature Valley retweeted. Today, Nature Valley has over 23,000 followers, gets 620 engagements per post and the photoshopped anime keep rolling in.

And before you think, “Well, that’s a small demographic!” think about this: niches overlap niches. According to Twtrland, the biggest audience interest is Anime, but the second biggest is Video Games. That is another ‘niche’ community that has grown with influence over the years. In fact, the most popular YouTube channels now are gamer related and the youth market spends insane hours watching others livestream video games on Twitch.tv.

People aren’t all the same and we aren’t one dimensional. Make friends in one strong niche community and they’ll carry you over to their other niche communities, creating a web effect.

By staying in the neutral zone, your brand isn’t connecting to anyone. The old way of thinking was that sticking your neck out and creating a voice that takes a position is risky. But that has changed. Now playing it ‘safe’ is riskier. And the risk is that you watch your competitors who take a position eat your lunch…or snack as it were.

RULE #2: LISTENING IS MORE VALUABLE THAN TALKING

When many brands approach social media, they approach it from a “How many people will see my message?” POV. That’s the wrong question. Instead, you should be asking, “How can I listen to more of my customer’s messages?”

My very rough “rule” of talking to listening is: 75% listening, 25% talking. If your social media plan doesn’t look like this, you are missing out on incredible opportunities to connect with your customers and your potential customers.

In fact, you should be listening 24/7 to as many channels possible. And you should be listening for your brand mention and to what people are saying about you, your competitors, their brand mentions and what people are saying about them, your customers even when they aren’t talking to you, trends, world news, influencers in your space and what they care about, etc. And you should be taking in all of that chatter and do the following:

  1. Understand where the puck is going, not where it is at. You’ll get ahead of the trends and get a jump on the competition;
  2. Recognize incredible opportunities for your brand to jump into the conversation naturally and shine (i.e. Oreo’s ‘Dunk in the dark’Arby’s Pharrell Williams hat joke);
  3. Get ahead of any issues before they hit the mainstream press, saving all sorts of headaches.
  4. Get to know your customers and the influencers in the space. Pay it forward. Build relationships before you need them for a favor;
  5. Get really comfortable with the culture and the tools. It’ll save you from all sorts of missteps in the future and make you a smarter marketer.

RULE #3: WHEN YOU SEE A PARADE, GET IN FRONT OF IT!


It was Tim O’Reilly who said this statement years ago and he should know. He built a successful publishing, event and media company because he recognized the growing movement of technology and the culture of it before many others.

Once you have established a great listening program, seeing that parade form gets easier. Whether it is a rising trend or a social movement that your brand fits naturally into, you can get ahead of it an develop a great strategy for how you can play a significant role.

This is also the heart of collaboration, which is a major driving force for building online relationships. Many YouTubers use collaboration as a tool for building their audience. A YouTuber will recognize fellow creators rising in their categories and reach out to them to collaborate on a project. When the YouTubers post their collaborations, they cross-pollinate audiences and gain new followers.

You can also jump in and be part of hashtag conversations that are on the rise, which will lead to discovery by others who follow and post under that hashtag. There is often a strong community discussing topics they are passionate about and a brand being part of that conversation in a respectful way builds cred in that community. You can even lead the discussion as you build those relationships, gaining even more credibility with your audience. Nature Valley, as mentioned previously, is a great example of this.

When done right, participation in memes is also a great way to show your brand is listening and has a sense of humor.

As you begin to understand the culture, you’ll see all sorts of opportunities to collaborate and contribute arise. You may even start some trends yourself!

RULE #4: TRUST IS THE MOST VALUABLE CURRENCY. TO EARN AND TO GIVE.


This is probably the toughest rule of all. Between legal implications, brand message control, and crisis management, trust is not inherent to the culture of corporations. And the bigger the brand, the more barriers there are to trust.

However, it is essential that you find a balance between mitigating risk and letting go of the reins in order to be fully agile and able to act on opportunities in real-time. And by finding a balance, I mean leaning more towards letting go.

Without trust, Jess Wangsness would have never been able to connect with the anime community that General Mills is now excited to embrace. Without trust, Josh Martin, the social media manager behind the @arbys twitter account wouldn’t have written the tweet about Pharrell Williams’ hat that got them 81,450 retweets, a mention from Pharrell himself and crazy press coverage. Without trust, most of the epic successes in social media by brands wouldn’t have happened. These weren’t tweets that were planned a month ahead and approved by committee. These were tweets by empowered social media managers.

Trust is also important when collaborating with influencers. The more you give them license to promote your brand in their own authentic way, the better that collaboration will go. Provide guidelines and goals and let them fill in the blanks. They may not always sound ‘on message’, but that’s the point! They’ve built trust with their audience and they need to retain that trust. It’s the most valuable part of your collaboration. Don’t damage it. It’s akin to burning bridges.

Of course, giving all of this trust will also lead to your gaining trust. And the more you have, the more you can cash it in. Those relationships are more valuable than any click or impression any day. They will pay off many times over the years.

RULE #5: INVEST IN THE LONG TERM

In a quarterly results driven world, many brands lose sight of the long term. And social and digital are ALL ABOUT the long-term. Long-term growth. Long-term relationships. Long-term investments.

Instead of putting a bunch of money and energy into one big video and trying to make it go viral (often through paid), invest that money into a long-term series where you can build an audience that can be engaged with over and over and over again.

My favorite example of how to do this right is a hair extensions brand out of Toronto called LuxyHair. The founders, Mimi Ikonn, Leyla Naghizada, and Alex Ikonn, started LuxyHair in 2010 when Mimi couldn’t find great hair extensions for her wedding to Alex. The sisters, Mimi and Leyla, were already playing around with YouTube, so using the channel for marketing was a no-brainer.

But instead of using the channel to sell hair extensions, Mimi and Leyla decided to show great hairstyles instead. A channel dedicated to the features of the hair extensions didn’t make sense. Showing the customer what she could DO with the hair extensions was much better. The more gorgeous long hair hairstyles they posted, the more they sold. Very few of the videos on LuxyHair’s channel even mention the hair extensions and, mostly, the extensions used for the style are subtly posted in the description of the video.

And the results? LuxyHair is the #4 top brand on YouTube with nearly 1.8 million subscribers. Their most popular video (Five Strand Braid) has nearly 12 million views and each video gets an average of 100k views. They are influencers themselves and only just started putting a bit of paid advertising behind their videos to reach an even wider audience. But the bottom line is also impressive. Though he didn’t reveal exact numbers, Alex told Shopify in a recent interview:

“I believe a more important measure for businesses is profitability and I can confidently say we are profitable in the seven-figures (annually).”

This long-term investment will continue to pay off for LuxyHair. They can expand their business, launch new product lines, and always have a built in audience to promote their ventures. Their boosting dollars merely underscore their already great, loved content.

The Real Digital Divide

The real digital divide is where we miss one another culturally. The social web is SUCH a powerful and amazing medium, but only if used right. It breaks my heart to see the direction the social platforms are steering brands towards. From Facebook’s 1-2% (soon to be 0%) reach for brands who have built a following on their platform, to million dollar promoted pins and Instagram photos that are soon to take over our feeds, brands are being told, “You have no right to be social here.”

And no, I don’t think everyone embraces brand involvement in the social conversation, but there are plenty who do. In fact, they are already involved tangentially through the human social chatter on these platforms. It’s not that we don’t want brands to participate, we just would prefer they stop interrupting the socializing for their commercial breaks. There is a great appreciation for brands who participate with the grain.

The key to marketing in the social era is to understand digital culture and adapting to it. That is why we are developing a series to help called Exploring Digital Cultures. The first of this series will be launched next week and will cover one of my favourite online phenomena:

Pet Influencers


It’s one helluva interesting culture. And feel free to share any digital cultural phenomena you’ve explored or want to see us explore below.

[the slideshare version of this post is here]

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Categories: featured, marketing, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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5 Comments on “The Key to Marketing in the Social Era: Understanding Digital Culture”

  1. June 15, 2014 at 22:19 #

    Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    A fantastic reflection on 10 years of the ‘social era’.

  2. June 15, 2014 at 23:21 #

    Reblogged this on Cate Owen and commented:
    This is a great read about the changing face of marketing in the digital age.

  3. June 15, 2014 at 23:24 #

    Reblogged this on Cate Owen and commented:
    This is a great read about the changing face of marketing in the digital age.

  4. June 16, 2014 at 05:39 #

    Very interesting article..A Good read

  5. June 19, 2014 at 01:56 #

    Reblogged this on Themanlai's blog and commented:
    Most brands are still thinking in terms of “mass”, “brand impressions” and “owning the conversation” even though the tools themselves are built for niche/personalization, listening, and open conversation.

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