Why Successful Branding Still Happens Offline

Does Facebook offer better branding opportunities than word-of-mouth and human interaction?

The Facebook IPO has both the financial and marketing communities abuzz, and with good reason. Facebook is the king of the social media hill, and its growth and ability to attract a loyal and highly networked audience is to be admired.
For brands, however, online social networks are far from the Holy Grail of marketing.  The research is increasingly clear and compelling that for brands that want to be social and generate conversation, a far bigger and more powerful force is real world, face-to-face conversation.
It has been said that online social media is “word of mouth on steroids.” Key to that argument is a belief that online conversations will spread to hundreds or thousands of people (and maybe more) with the click of a mouse. But while that is theoretically possible, it is not the way online sharing usually works. Most links that are shared reach only 5-10 people. And the huge legions of Facebook fans, it turns out, are not so actively engaged with the brands they once “liked.” Fewer than 1% of brand fans on Facebook have any type of active involvement, bringing those huge numbers back down to earth.
Meanwhile, our research finds that 90% of word-of-mouth conversations about brands take place offline, primarily face-to-face, in people’s homes and offices, in restaurants and stores, really anywhere people congregate. These conversations bring with them greater credibility, a greater desire to share with others, and a great likelihood to purchase the products being discussed than conversations that take place online.
So if not via Facebook and other social networking sites, what can brands do to get conversations started? It is important to fight the urge to start your marketing strategy with a particular tool or approach. Instead, start a story that consumers will want to talk about. What are the messages about your brand and category that make you talkworthy?
Next, it’s important to tap the right talkers. Who are the consumer influencers in your category, and your brand advocates? When and where do they talk, about what, and why? Often the people who have credibility when they talk are not the target customer. And the places to reach these influencers will not flow naturally from your media optimization plan unless you’re clearly focused on word of mouth as a primary goal. Media with the largest concentrations of influencers will surprise you.
Once you have your message and target in mind, only then does it make sense to choose the channels through which to reach people and to encourage sharing. And it turns out, the biggest and most productive channel to spark conversation is not online social media, but paid advertising. Fully one-quarter of conversations about brands include an explicit reference to ads. In fact, television advertising is far and away the single biggest driver of consumer conversation. Far from being a dinosaur, as some pundits say, television and other traditional media play a key role in today’s social marketplace.
Today’s consumer marketplace is highly social, but not because of particular platforms or technologies. The businesses that will be the most successful in the future are the ones that embrace a model that puts people– rather than technology – at the center of products, campaigns and market strategies. Those who achieve the greatest success will recognize that there are many ways to tap the power of today’s social consumer.
The great social wave is an opportunity that no business can afford to ignore or look at myopically. It’s happening all around us – and to the continuing surprise of many, it’s mostly happening face-to-face.

Ed Keller and Brad Fay are co-authors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, to be published in May by Free Press. They are also principals of the Keller Fay Group, a market research and consulting firm.

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