Social media. It's so often viewed as a marketing channel, the 21st century way of creating awareness and consideration for brands.
Just look at the recent furore over Facebook's declining reach.
Social@Ogilvy announce that brands have suffered a 50% decline in organic reach in the past six months, Facebook warn marketers to expect further declines, and the marketing world explodes. Facebook are accused of "bait and switch" - encouraging brands to build up audiences for free, and then denying them access unless they pay to advertise.
Yet the real lesson from this controversy is that the marketing mindset around social media needs to change. People don't want their news feeds overrun with posts from brands - they use social media to socialize rather than to consume branded content. And when people do engage with brands, they are usually existing customers rather than new ones.
Instead of a marketing channel, the power of social media lies in its ability to connect and strengthen relationships - the "social" rather than the "media". Approached like this, it becomes an integral part of earning the loyalty and advocacy of existing customers.
There are three roles social media can fulfill in any loyalty strategy:
1. Connect customers with each other.
Given people's innate desire to socialize, it can provide a place for customers to connect with each other under the umbrella of the brand. American Express's OPEN Forum does this, enabling its small business cardholders to connect and help each other with business issues. So too NikePlus, which allows customers to interact with friends who use Nike’s digital products.
The brand can take part, but more as the host of the party to get the conversation going - it shouldn't dominate, the aim is to get customers talking to each other.
2. Improve the customer experience.
Listening to conversations around the brand can provide a great deal of insight to improve the customer experience and address emerging issues before they escalate. 3M for example has replaced many of its traditional focus-groups with customer discussion groups online. And learning more about customers from their social networks opens up the possibility of creating more personalized customer experiences.
Brands such as JetBlue and FedEx have also shown how social media can improve customer service, by providing timely and helpful responses to queries and complaints.
3. Involve customers in the brand.
Customers can be invited to participate in telling the brand story. With its Art of the Trench campaign, for example, Burberry virtually re-invigorated its brand by encouraging customers to post pictures of themselves wearing its signature trench coat, which could then be commented on and shared.
I've also found it powerful to ask customers for help - how could the brand help them in other ways, what's their opinions of product designs, or how could the experience be improved. Starbucks did this to great effect with MyStarbucksideas, again re-invigorating the brand in the process.
And as an added bonus, using social media to interact with customers can humanize the brand in ways that were previously only possible through physical contact, creating a more human connection.
Of course, all this is still marketing. But by approaching social media as a "social" rather than "media" channel, loyalty can be strengthened and customers encouraged to spread the word for the brand. As studies have repeatedly shown, people trust the opinions of friends, family and other customers far more than communications from the brand.
Rather than accusations of "bait and switch", this is surely where marketers energy should be focused...