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A big conversation with the chattering classes

October 2012

The internet and its burgeoning social networks has given consumers and communities unprecedented power to publish and organise action. But is it just a passing fad?

As you read this, Facebook has probably surpassed the one-billionth-active-users milestone. That's approximately one seventh of the planet's entire human population logging on to the world's first and foremost social network at least once a month.

At the time of writing, Facebook has not officially confirmed the achievement but, having reached 955 million active users in June, with an estimated 552 million logging on every day, it was due to pass the one billion mark in late August or September.

Contrary to many of its users, who post mundane details of their lives several times every day, Facebook has not so much as issued even an email to mark the achievement. Perhaps its joint founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is just being bashful. Or perhaps, in the prevailing etiquette of internet citizenship, it would be seen as gloating. After all, it's not the only social network on the web, and the internet's short history tells us that usage patterns can change very quickly – who still uses Friends Reunited?

The rise of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter mirrors that of the internet, on which their existence depends. The 'world wide web', as it's no longer called, has destroyed the separation between work and home. Its usefulness could not be denied just over 15 short years ago, but when our connections to it were via a 56k modem, the wait to download even basic websites did not necessarily point to the internet becoming the backbone of so much of our modern lifestyle.

Such is the low cost of entering the fray that the internet brings with it a powerful logic, a self-fulfilling technological revolution. Today, so much business is managed and transacted via the internet that no company wishing to compete in the market can afford to ignore it. Sage pre-sales manager David Beard told the Marketeer: “Social media and the data and insight we can glean from it mean we have reached marketing nirvana.”

This is also a double-edged sword. The fact that the internet has removed barriers to posting material to places where it could be seen by millions of people worldwide, and who might themselves re-post the material or share their comments, and all within seconds, means that a company no longer has control of its reputation and brand completely in its gift.

The internet brings disparate people together in virtual communities, and in so doing gives them power. Or, as Dr Jane Atterton's study of business owners in the Scottish Highlands and islands says, it “gives strength to weak ties”.

Taking this to its ultimate, logical conclusion is Twitter, which allows users to publish messages of up to 140 characters in a flash. Launched in March 2006, it took Twitter three years, two months and one day to register its billionth tweet. Today, there are more than a billion tweets sent every three days, representing conversations related to almost any topic imaginable. Thanks to social networking, everyone can publish and everyone has an audience.

For businesses and brands, says Twitter in its promotional material, “these conversations provide a rich canvas and a powerful context in which to connect your messages and your brand to what people are talking about right now. It's a canvas for telling engaging stories, for participating in cultural events, for broadcasting content, for connecting directly with consumers, and for driving transactions.

“Businesses can influence and participate in real-time conversations on Twitter to drive consumer action with integrated paid, earned and owned campaigns, delivering results throughout the marketing funnel.”

“Businesses can also use Twitter to listen and gather market intelligence and insights. It is likely that people are already having conversations about your business, your competitors or your industry on Twitter.”

What this now means is that companies must strike a delicate balance between managing their level of transparency and protecting the organisation from potentially destabilising speculation and comment.

However, the critical power of social networking is not so much that it brings together collections of individuals, but that it enables them to find like-minded people who share a sense of common purpose. And, having found those people with whom to share their common perspective, they appear more likely to act.

Facebook, for instance, might be a forum for inane chatter, but it is undeniably also a means of sharing important concerns and experiences, and that this can change lives. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, where social media has given legs to the desire for political change.

In Egypt early last year, internet activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim helped fuel the first protests against president Hosni Mubarak when he created a Facebook page commemorating Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Alexandria businessman beaten to death by police in 2010.

For many Egyptians, this was the first time they had learned of the extent of state torture in their own country, and the page helped attract hundreds of thousands of recruits to a campaign against police brutality. That campaign fuelled a wider movement that eventually ended Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The combination of mobile camera phones and the internet has also helped ensured the world sees  events that would otherwise be hidden from view. The conflicts of the Arab Spring, and particularly Syria at the moment, being a case in point. Though it's not impossible, it is much more difficult, even for a repressive regime, to completely control the propaganda war.

But social networks are also driving more subtle changes, many of which may not be not fully understood. Rather less immediately dramatic, for instance, is the cultural shift that the internet is posing for businesses.

Before digital media, it was often enough for a company to communicate with the outside world by issuing press releases. Those days have gone. Now, a company and its brand images are linked to the thoughts and conversations of communities of consumers, who can now contribute to the discussion from anywhere in the world.

Wayne Levine is MD of South African digital agency NXT\ Digital Innovation. He said: “Businesses are based on trust and foresight. Establishing and keeping trust with customers, communities and regulators is critically important. To successfully establish trust and maintain it over time, companies need to think beyond what's affecting them today to what's going to happen tomorrow.

“This isn't just about addressing changes to technology or the needs of customers either. It's also about taking social issues into account.”

His company was approached by health, home and hygiene company Reckitt Benckiser to develop a social media campaign concept and strategy for Vanish TrustPink, with the aim of raising awareness of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Vanish, the company's stain removal brand, was to sponsor Wear It Pink, the UK Breast Cancer Campaign's biggest national fundraiser. NXT\'s brief was to create mass awareness around this Vanish CSR initiative and create a digital user experience in the process.

In a collaboration with women's health group PinkDrive, Reckitt Benckiser wanted a Facebook page, a Twitter page and a dedicated YouTube channel for its 2011 TrustPink campaign. In support of International Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), the campaign aimed to spread the message that one in every 29 women in South Africa will be diagnosed with breast cancer and that early detection saves lives.

Online and mobile digital media advertising campaigns were used to drive traffic to the Facebook page and application, as well as an educational site.

On Facebook, fans from across South Africa were encouraged to donate money to PinkDrive via a donations application that linked to an online payment gateway. A daily donations 'ticker' allowed fans to track the total amount of money pledged. A second donations initiative was also promoted on the platform in the way of wall posts, urging consumers to purchase Vanish 02 Powder from selected stores. For every product bought, Vanish would donate a further R2.90 to PinkDrive.

On both Facebook and Twitter, there were daily educational updates on important breast cancer information and news, along with a platform for users to ask questions about breast cancer. There were video links to cancer survival stories, to breast cancer support centres, the PinkDrive mobile breast clinic – for free mammography screenings – and fundraising initiatives.

With the aim of colouring Facebook pink, the TrustPink page also allowed users to download pink breast cancer ribbons and place them over their own Facebook profile pictures and that of their Facebook friends.

A TrustPink YouTube channel hosted PinkDrive videos of fundraising events held during Breast Cancer Awareness month and heartfelt video testimonials from breast cancer survivors were uploaded.

Strategically run between Women's Month (August) and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), the campaign was judged a success. The Facebook page attracted more than 4,000 fans and, although the Twitter page started slowly, the growth in traffic was, in the end, exponential, in thanks partly to re-tweets of TrustPink material by radio personalities and local celebrities. At the end of the three month campaign, R100,000.00 was donated to PinkDrive.

Levine added: “Not only did the initiative allow Vanish to communicate, educate and interact with fans around the important topic of breast health, it also enabled the brand to build a Vanish-specific common interest community – giving the brand an opportunity to grow and personalise its image.”

Countless companies and brands have travelled along the same path as Vanish TrustPink and, in the process, confronting a range of core issues about their company, its ethos and responsiveness – even the 'humanity' of their brands.

Talking to Mashable, Luis Ramos, CEO of The Network, said creating a social media strategy is a complex exercise because “it includes not only looking inside the organisation to establish appropriate practices, usage policies and content parameters, but it also looks outside the organisation to determine the proper degree of engagement.”

Given how technologies and online trends come and go, companies and their brands will need to keep their collective wits about them just to keep up.


  • We're launching our revamped Ethical Performance website this autumn. Watch this space for developments.



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