Transparency, engagement and social media: fulfilling a need

The author, who has worked on the internet since 1990, and used social networks such as Facebook and Twitter soon after their inception, looks at how these new media can impact on branding strategies and transparency.

The article is a version of a paper published in the Journal of Brand Management (2011).

Jack Yan1
Jack Yan & Associates
*protected email*

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011

WEB 2.0 AND SOCIAL NETWORKS have been hailed as the next media for marketing, its proponents pointing to the presence of politicians and actors on Twitter and Facebook. Since mainstream media pointed out that actor-writer Stephen Fry was on Twitter, there was a sudden growth in subscribers in the UK. A further mention on The Oprah Winfrey Show saw some talk about an “Oprah effect” on Twitter, spurring growth Stateside. The most complimentary publicity for Twitter, however, was for then-Sen. Barack Obama”s presidential campaign, with some crediting the service for his success.
   Each one of these statements has an element of truth to them. There is no doubt that celebrities have managed to harness social media to broadcast to their fans, bypassing the press and setting the record straight. Fans feel somehow connected, as though their idol is talking to them directly.
   The Obama campaign, meanwhile, tapped in to a group of voters who are computer-savvy. The campaign managed to mobilize people who might not have voted, giving the senator an edge that his principal opponent, Sen. John McCain, did not consider.
   But how real are these phenomena and how do they impact on branding?
   Aside from setting some ideas for future research, this paper aims to provide an examination of blogs and social networks, considering their branding potential and what organizations need to consider to build their brands using them.

Why brand online?
The case for online branding has been set elsewhere, with the conclusion that most of the same rules apply. Brands still need to be differentiated and communicated to audiences, and it was found that successful online firms in the late 1990s tended to have strong CEO involvement in their websites.2 As the web mainstreamed, countless exceptions emerged: there was no longer a talent vacuum when it came to managing website relations with consumers, and CEOs could step back from answering feedback forms. Staff who grew up in the web era understood how to deal with online questions; databases with copy-and-paste answers were developed; and, in some cases, “knowledge bases” looked for keywords in a submitted question and fielded prepared answers without human intervention.
   In essence, the promise of the 1990s” World Wide Web began disappearing: once seen as a democratizing force where stakeholders could speak directly to company heads, especially in the small- to medium-sized enterprises that went online in the early days, it became just another medium.
   Blogs were seen as the next step: Chua and Parackal have done some incisive research into CEO blogs,3 which give some leaders a chance to provide audiences with an idea of their philosophy. But in an era of competing media and short attention spans, Facebook updates, fan pages and Tweets became part of the branding lexicon.
   Facebook”s commercial potential was always present, from the minute founder Mark Zuckerberg took the service away from its North American college-campus roots and allowed non-students to create profiles in 2006. It has become more commercialized (and arguably less concerned with user privacy)4 since then, in order to capture business and profits through advertising. Originally a site that aimed to connect friends and contacts, Facebook broadened to include groups and fan pages for organizations, creating a closed network of 400 million (and rising) users who advertisers might wish to pitch.
   Many flock to the service. Facebook allowed blogs to be imported, forcing more users to stay on the site rather than go to the source. It gave the impression of direct engagement: companies could, for instance, communicate directly with their supporters. It attempted to bridge the gap between organization and audience again, much like the web and email once did.
   In politics, the author is currently in a bid for the mayoralty in Wellington, New Zealand. A Facebook fan page has been set up, and the same behaviours are apparent: supporters seldom head to email to ask political questions. They field them on his Facebook fan page. Some of his opponents have set up rival pages, and other cities” mayors and mayoral candidates have done the same in this election year. Interaction is often rewarded with additional supporters.
   Outside politics, the author has observed the growth of the designer Tamsin Cooper, whose Facebook page, set up during the first quarter of 2010, has brought 658 fans at the time of writing. Cooper lives in a town, Arrowtown, New Zealand, of 1,700: the Facebook page has been a way for her to centre her international marketing activities, complementing her website and online sales. Importantly, it allows Cooper to interact directly with her supporters and clients.
   Twitter, which claims to have Sen. Barack Obama as a user—though later it emerged that the “Tweets” were those of his campaign team5—is less formal. One user Tweets a statement of 140 characters, usually an update of what that person is doing. In terms of the Obama campaign, the Tweets pertained to the senator”s political speeches and campaign ideals, and followers could ask questions and engage with him.
   It was a masterful use of the service. While it was not Sen. Obama himself on there, it gave the illusion of his presence. It certainly reflected his views. Secondly, his campaign team was careful to follow back as many supporters as possible—Twitter users can see who has become a “follower”, giving them an option to return the favour. This, too, satisfied netizens” feeling of being engaged: that there was a genuine belief of a two-way street in communication with the senator.
   The desire for engagement is not limited to the United States. The Residents 2010 conference in Wellington, New Zealand, brought residents” associations from around the country together for a day, discussing issues that were pertinent to them. The Hon Peter Dunne, MP, stated early in the conference that such organizations need to “band together” to fight for their communities, acknowledging that “power resides in the community, with their representation and their engagement. Community engagement is not political … local democratization is occurring more in residents” associations.”
   Showing a video from author John Ralston Saul,6 it was stressed that one of the causes of community alienation stems from specialized managers who are employed to solve various problems. But their specialization restricts citizens who have other ideas, which combats the democratic nature that one expects.
   Other comments heard include, “The Local Government Act does not empower local representatives to represent local people”; “Councils will become less representative, because their business objectives will alienate citizens”; and “As [local issues] become more pressing, how can we activate the public response?”
   In another speech, New Zealand”s native Māori population was a victim of “ticking the boxes” when it came to their needs, trivializing and indeed restricting what they were about. (Parallels were drawn with the rights of women and blacks in the US in earlier centuries.) There was a general fear of politicians losing power through engagement, and talk after talk highlighted that engagement was not happening early enough with citizens.
   If there was one sector where engagement was called for consistently, it was in local politics. In her concluding conference speech, New Zealand Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem stated, “The internet”s tools are important [in describing] how to mobilize and educate people regarding their rights and the legislation.”
   Short of an Obama-style campaign engaging the public, New Zealand”s local political scene was in dire need of politicians and political processes that could engage the public. In the wake of the American presidential election, citizens” feeling of alienation could quickly be dealt with through social media.
   The author is currently in a bid for the mayoralty in Wellington, New Zealand. A Facebook fan page has been set up, and the same behaviours are apparent: supporters seldom head to email to ask political questions. They field them on his Facebook fan page. Some of his opponents have set up rival pages, and other cities” mayors and mayoral candidates have done the same in this election year. Interaction is often rewarded with additional supporters.
   Far more trivial, though no less interesting from an academic perspective, is the Twitter account of a fictional character, Jim Keats, from the recently finished television show Ashes to Ashes. An unofficial account, it was set up in January 2010, long before the character was introduced on the show. After the show commenced, the Keats account (at twitter.com/jimkeats) attracted an average of 100 additional followers per week, of fans wishing to supplement their television viewing with Tweeting—even if it was with a fictional person. Very few of the 900 followers the account attracted were bots, surprisingly. “Jim Keats” interacted with other fictional characters on the service, all role-played by other fans. It helped take the programme”s brand on to Twitter and provided viewers with an additional access point to the TV show.
   In most cases—those in which fictional characters are not involved (!)—blogs, Facebook and Twitter are helpful in revealing the thinking of the people behind the brands. They satisfy a need: the desire of engagement with a brand they wish to be associated with, or, to put it in Engeseth”s terms, to feel “one” with the brand.7 Their motives are connected to the idea of corporate citizenship and how successful brands promote its ideas.8
   Engeseth”s theory is that the separate nature of many brand relationships—the “them” and “us”—is obsolete. Companies need to collaborate with consumers not just for R&D, but for everyday marketing purposes. Examples he cites includes Linux, where the user base collaborate on developments to the operating system and become evangelists in the process. WordPress, the blogging platform, is another. Engeseth also points out that Michael Dell spends 40 per cent of his time dealing with Dell computer customers directly. As does Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea.
   Brands cannot be controlled centrally or in a top-down manner in these circumstances. Coinciding with these developments has been the rise of virtual working, of people expected to unite under a single banner with a uniform brand despite being based in homes or in spread-out offices.
   But Linux is a real collaboration: the results speak for themselves. The real fear with brands in the social networking era is that they will fall into the same traps they did with email and the web, where the interaction with those in charge is gone. Facebook and Google, two brands that rank relatively highly in surveys, are notorious for being opaque: Facebook”s privacy changes frequently prompt criticism, while there is virtually no support for the free users of Google, unless they are lucky enough to find a person in authority. Both companies may provide tools for online interaction that can aid transparency, but neither practises it when it comes to their core products.
   Above, the author has pointed out that Barack Obama”s Twitter account, during the presidential campaign, was not manned by him. Thus, it is as easy to obscure one”s identity with these services as it is with any other medium.

   An analysis of some of the top celebrities and politicians indicate that they are not engaging their fan base, undermining the use of the Twitter service. There is little or no engagement by some of the most-followed users of the service, including Ashton Kutcher, Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore (Table 1). For them, Twitter is a one-way service, an extra broadcast channel where the relationship with the audience matters less than their own message. However, President Obama, Britney Spears and Stephen Fry have better ratios, indicating more engagement, or at least, a greater intention to engage. (The ideal number is 100 per cent, although this is impossible to expect, especially when a Twitter account acquires mass following over a short period of time.)
   Given this, are they genuine tools for transparency and the sort of “oneness” preached by Engeseth? And what advantages can organizations get from using them?

Brands and social networks
The theory behind social networking is sound. Brands must be genuine. Those that are “surface” are soon uncovered. It is no different from a government offering sound bites that seem pleasant to the public ear, but whose policies differ from the electorate. It is a sure way of being unelected at the polls the first chance voters get.
   By going to blogs and social networks, people can understand the personalities behind the scenes. In fact, this can prove more useful for the smaller organization because the principal can be the one who writes, updates the Facebook fan page, or Tweets. It allows that organization to be more responsive to audiences and consumer demands. It also allows the chief decision-maker in the organization to grasp the prevailing mood of the public.9 They are more cost-effective media than above-the-line advertising or even formal PR,10 and go some way to levelling the playing field for small- to medium-sized enterprises.
   Brands that are unsupported by additional media can fail because they are not letting their stories shine through. The importance of “legends” inside the organization have been shown by many writers and researchers to be important, providing a hook for brands to be understood internally and externally. Therefore, even the less well presented company, lacking the budget to look as swish as a richer competitor, might be able to exploit a competitive advantage by telling a story without the interference of a communications” department.
   The personalities can come through: a traditional law firm might still Tweet but do so in a formal way—writing in complete sentences, never abbreviating or using internet acronyms, and providing useful knowledge to its followers. It would have to stop short at revealing any privileged information, but its personality can still come through. At the other end of the scale, a musician might provide samples of her work online, downloadable through a blog, and connect that blog automatically on to her Facebook page and Twitter account. Regardless of the situation, a unique voice can emerge, one that is sufficiently differentiated from competitors. The organization manages to solve not only the question of differentiation, but those of transparency, engagement online slots and accessibility.

Issues
   With an increasing amount of activity happening in the social media sphere, it would seem prudent to examine how to incorporate the media into a brand strategy.
   Along with his colleagues at the Medinge Group, the author participated in writing Beyond Branding,11 which dealt with the growing consumer desire for transparent brands. There is nothing to suggest that that desire has lessened in the last seven years: anecdotally, it has grown as social media have.
   It would suggest, for many organizations, a total change in how they communicate, abandoning the top-down process for something that accepts inputs from audiences to drive strategies.
   When many authors discuss transparency in branding, it is not simply about ethics. There are obvious savings in communicating the same message to internal and external audiences. By being open, every audience has the same potential access to the same information. Perhaps most importantly, stakeholders feel that sense of corporate citizenship and oneness, which helps build brand loyalty and grows awareness.
   Issues for practitioners will include:

  • how to include this level of transparency into a branding strategy, and whether the organization itself can handle the added work. As part of the vision-setting for the organization, organizations must ask themselves if they desire extra scrutiny. Questions will include whether principals are willing to schedule in regular entries on to a corporate blog, and work alongside their communications” department. The structure is flatter. They might want to consider whether they wish to read the feedback personally. Ideally, they will need to ensure that it is their voice and not one that has been too sanitized by communications. The organization has to consider whether these statements appear in a corporate account or a personal one, and the relationship between the two;
  • it will have to look at researching its audiences and whether they demand the level of interaction that social media provide. Some businesses might not need it because their audiences are not connected online: those targeting elderly audiences might find conventional media to be more useful. The author notes that a growing number of clients are finding that their audiences are demanding, at the last, a Facebook presence;
  • the organization will have to look at extending the rules surrounding its brand usage in to new media. It will also have to consider whether it is to influence the appearance of personal accounts. If personal blogs and Twitter accounts have already been set up before the organization has created its own, it needs to ask itself how official they are;
  • the organization needs to consider how to measure the success of branding in social media, either through surveys on whether audiences believe transparency has increased, or using other measures, such as brand equity constructs, revenue, market share, or follower or fan numbers.

Challenges to transparency
   Labour malpractices, child exploitation and environmental harm have nothing to do with branding, even if, in the eyes of Klein12 or Quart,13 the profession is complicit. Equally, the misuse of blogs and social media are not due to any inherent problem with the platforms. If certain parties choose to use Twitter as a one-way channel, then it is their choice: there is no rule book that governs the service. But it would be a wasted opportunity, doing little to promote interaction and understanding audiences. Instead, those that use the technologies as top-down media risk making themselves look separate, going against transparency and oneness. In an era when both are valued, the brand, whether personal or organizational, is weakened through appearing “above” one”s supporters.
   Secondly, there is the problem of having someone other than the claimed person behind the blog, Facebook or Twitter account. The organization should ensure that in the case of a shared blog or Facebook fan page, the identity of the writer is known; but ghost-written media can prompt criticism; this can only undermine the brand.14
   The looming problems are also technological. Each medium starts off being exclusive. The programming that appears on that medium appeals to that exclusive audience. But as it mainstreams, that exclusivity is lost.
   For the most part, there is nothing wrong with this diffusion of an innovation. Television would be useless if TV sets cost the equivalent of a motor car; motor cars would have failed to transform society if they remained the playthings of the rich.
   But with the democratization of technologies, they have become utilitarian. Email was once exclusive; it is now a tool, with few business people using it for leisure as they did 20 years ago. Along the way, spam threatened to make email useless; email newsletters risk being caught in spam filters.
   The same tendencies are emerging in the blogosphere, with some websites generating fake entries. Blogger, the blogging platform owned by Google, has been using a bot to detect fake blogs that are created using automated scripts. A small percentage of legitimate blogs have been deleted including, for a brief period in 2010, one for the respected UK firm Minale Tattersfield, which was out of action for two weeks. Vox, the blogging service owned by Californian firm Six Apart, is a target of many “sploggers” (spam bloggers).
   Twitter, which is much harder to patrol and easier to manipulate, has its share of fake accounts, with programs adding followers and Tweeting fake messages. Reports of Twitter”s growth stagnating have surfaced in the technological press during 2009 and early 2010.15
   Facebook, meanwhile, is turning off a small minority of users fed up with its privacy changes—although the carrot of 400 million users is too great for many organizations to abandon it.
   All may well turn users away at some point, especially when they feel they can no longer have the sense of engagement and oneness with the brand.
   Therefore, while these tools are useful, they may well be replaced by others in the 2010s. Perhaps those tools will integrate visuals and the person”s voice, things that are (at this point) harder to automate. For now, they are real, and they need to be considered in a branding strategy.

Conclusion
   Audiences have demanded greater ethics and transparency from brands for many years. However, that demand has become far louder as audiences found their voices through the internet, in particular, driving a greater awareness of social responsibility in the 2000s. Alongside those demands have been ones for transparency, forcing organizations to work more closely with their audiences. People want to know that they have some influence over the brands they connect with.
   As technologies change, social media are where audiences can interact with those brands. They have their pitfalls, with many organizations not building them into their overall branding strategies, or failing to use them to interact. In neither case is transparency increased. Technological problems limit their appeal.
   Nevertheless, if used correctly, blogs and social media can be useful tools for differentiation as they allow a company”s personality to shine through. They also provide means for audiences to engage and access brands. Importantly, they can provide greater transparency, a behind-the-scenes look at the thinking of organizations, giving their brands greater relevance and appeal.

Notes
   1. LLB, BCA (Hons.), MCA. CEO, Jack Yan & Associates (http://jya.net); Founding Publisher, Lucire (http://lucire.com); Director, the Medinge Group (http://medinge.org). Copyright ©2010 by Jack Yan & Associates. All rights reserved.
   2. J. Yan: “Online Branding: an Antipodean Experience”, in Kim, Ling, Lee and Park (eds.): Human Society and the Internet. Berlin: Springer 2001, pp. 185-202.
   3. A. P. H. Chua, and M. Parackal: “Co-creating value through corporate blogs: a proposed research framework”, 5th National Conference on Computing and Information Technology (NCCIT), Bangkok, Thailand, May 22-3, 2009.
   4. B. Krishnamurthy and C. E. Willis: “On the leakage of personally identifiable information via online social networks”, Workshop on Online Social Networks (WOSN), Barcelona, Spain, August 17, 2009.
   5. M. Kirkpatrick: “Obama: “I have never used Twitter””, ReadWriteWeb, November 15, 2009, <http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/obama_i_have_never_used_twitter.php>.
   6. Cf. J. R. Saul: The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin 2006.
   7. S. Engeseth: One: a Consumer Revolution in Business. London: Cyan-Marshall Cavendish 2005.
   8. N. Ind and R. Bjerke: Branding Governance: a Participatory Approach to the Brand Building Process. Chicester: J. Wiley & Sons 2007, pp. 51-7.
   9. An example of a responsive CEO is Christian von Koenigsegg, who made modifications to his company”s sports car after criticism on the TV show Top Gear. A new model was ready for testing within weeks. A larger company would have added the criticism to a longer improvement cycle and the modification might not have been seen for years.
   10. S. Engeseth: The Fall of PR and the Rise of Advertising. Stockholm: Stefan Engeseth Publishing 2009.
   11. N. Ind (ed.): Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity Are Changing the World of Brands. London: Kogan Page 2003.
   12. N. Klein: No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador 2000.
   13. A. Quart: Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing 2003.
   14. Especially in politics: opponents of the two high-profile politicians in the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, flung accusations about ghost-writing.
   15. D. Gross: “Has Twitter peaked?”, CNN.com, January 26, 2010, <http://edition.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/26/has.twitter.peaked/index.html>.

Jack YanTransparency, engagement and social media: fulfilling a need

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