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How to counter the risk of social media fatigue

Social media has changed our lives. Not only in terms of the way we communicate and share information with each other, but also fundamentally in terms of the relationship we have with brands. 

Guest blog

Or has it? Are we really closer to brands just because we can Tweet them or Like them on Facebook? Does a Facebook-led campaign truly deliver the holy grail of deeper engagement between brands and their users? And ultimately, does the ever-increasing investment by brands in their social media activity actually deliver greater consumption? Are things about to change?

Over the past year or so, in highly developed markets such as Australia, UK and USA,  the phenomenon of ‘social media fatigue’ is on the rise.  Data is showing that some users of Facebook in particular are beginning to spend time on it less.  Facebook themselves have said in recent corporate updates that they are struggling to grow revenue from users – particularly those connecting via their mobiles – and they are having to look again at how they can better monetise the way brands and consumers connect and interact with each other on Facebook.

Unsurprisingly, mainstream traditional media is seizing its chance to take a shot at social media – a Dispatches programme on Channel 4 in August 2013 was dedicated to unlocking the real truth behind Likes on Facebook for brands and the rise of ‘fake’ Tweets.  They suggested that it’s all too easy to manipulate social media and to mislead consumers into thinking that some brands on Facebook are more popular than they really are and that tweets from celebrities appearing to endorse products are often not as genuine as they may seem, actually breaching ASA guidelines on promotional activity.

What does this mean for brands?

Given the strength of Facebook, Google and Twitter and their huge importance to brands, it might appear to be counterintuitive to suggest that brands should be thinking more carefully about how they use social media.  However, if all of the above is really true and that there is starting to be a slow but steady backlash from some consumers against social media, as market researchers it is crucial for us to understand why it is happening and what the implications and the potential risks are for brands?

It’s not just about Likes

It’s not new news to say it’s not enough any more to simply chase Likes and build followers – and this is despite the revelations made in the Dispatches programme. However, with short attention spans and large numbers of brands competing for attention, if there’s nothing beyond a discount coupon or special offer in return for the click (as is still often the case), then users quickly forget that they even liked or follow the brand or product.  Insights gleaned from a number of recent communications research projects undertaken by See | Research & Planning suggest that consumers aren’t even aware of how many and what brands they like on Facebook.  And even if they are getting status updates in their news feed, they are ignoring them or don’t even remember when or why they signed up to them in the first place.

Content is king

In exchange for Liking a brand and being open to starting a conversation, consumers are seeking content.  But this is not just a little information about the brand’s history and what it sells or its latest ad campaign, or else another means by which to complain.  More than ever, they want new and interesting content, which gives added depth and meaning to their relationship with the brand.  They are seeking ways to learn from the brand itself and from other people who share their Like in common.  They want to be given real and meaningful opportunities to interact and talk to the brand – to be able to listen to and to discuss with; to share and to be informed.

There are now some leading lights shining a dynamic new way to engage with consumers online, particularly in the e-commerce sector.  Websites such as alexanderandjames.com and mrporter.com have fundamentally changed the way brands sell online.  Whilst still clearly being a shop, these sites are much more content led than their rivals.  They actively encourage visitors to learn more about drinks and fashion in an engaging, exciting and meaningful way.  They cleverly use social media to tell new news to their army of followers, all the while with the aim of driving users to access content on the website itself, rather than through social media alone.

This evolving approach is supported by David Hilton, former marketing director of Sony Mobile.  He firmly believes that in order to generate a strong return on investment, the best role for social media is one of brand reputation and advocacy.  He says that when he felt his brand was less strong, he focused resources towards social media channels to create a ‘TestLab’ on Facebook.  This allowed Sonyto take some of their biggest critics and fans and give them greater knowledge through access to the team and products.  As a result, he found that that they proactively acted as consumer brand advocates better managing Sony’s brand throughout social media channels with greater credibility and lower cost than relying on a PR agency alone.

What does the future hold?

For many brands their online activity, particularly when it comes to social media, continues to be too fragmented. This is despite the fact that the boundaries between on-line and off-line are more blurred than ever.

It’s important to understand that just because something exists online, there are still real people clicking on the other end of the computer and the same challenges around engagement and need for strong content exists.  Arguably, they are getting even harder as the competition grows.  Market researchers have a privileged opportunity to show brands the way. By truly understanding what consumers want, research can be at the forefront of shaping social media and online strategy and developing content for brands that will truly engage and inspire to meaningfully deepen relationships.

Howard Josephs is Director of See | Research & Planning and an associate of Think Communications

Julie Kangisser