You Can’t Lose What You Never Had

As digital practice lead of a major multi-national communications services agency, I’ve engaged in many discussions with representatives of diverse brands and organisations looking to develop a digital presence or campaign.

In nearly all cases those conversations have gravitated to the difficulty of measuring campaign effectiveness and the challenge of communicating via social media where ceding partial message control to your audience is often a prerequisite for success.

Whilst challenges for brands obtaining accurate measurement of social media campaigns are well-founded – i.e. there is still no broadly accepted formulae which equates digital metrics to sales or increased market share, the fear of a brand losing control of its image when engaging in social media is based on a false premise. Namely, that brand communicators have full control in the first place.

Consider traditional media. PR professionals can conduct research, develop key messages, plan and write comprehensive communications toolkits, strategies and briefing documents and engage the most proactive media relations campaign imaginable. But, at the end of the day, editors and journalists will still decide what they will or will not publish.

The notion of control in communications stems from paid media campaigns – advertising and marketing, where brand communicators can and do dictate where and how a consumer receive the brand messages. What brand communicators sometimes forget is that the ‘control’ paid media provides them ends as soon as the campaign is executed and the brand communications are given to the court of public opinion.

Paid media can provide no control whatsoever over the conversations which take place among target audiences who receive brand communications messages. Brand communications cannot control whether target audiences act on the key messages presented to them. Given the enormous budgets brands pay for a ‘presence’ this fact makes for a sobering reminder.

Prior to the widespread adoption of social media, it was impossible for a brand to track conversations taking place in cafes or around a water cooler. Now, these discussions are happening in spaces we can listen to, receive feedback, craft a response and participate in.

A brand now has unfettered access to its target audience – where listening is just as important as communicating, to determine what they need and to act on those needs. Whilst it’s true that brand communicators don’t have control over what online audiences say, the revolution now understood by brand communicators but seldom grasped, is that they now have the ability to find out what audiences want and respond to them with solutions, products, etc.

By engaging with an existing online community or building a new one, it’s possible to develop relationship with target audiences, ensuring they are more receptive to brand messages. Best practice online engagement even allows audiences to provide input on how to improve products or services, with product development teams acting on consumer advice.

This is not to say that it’s important to listen to the most vocal critics (or advocates), but engagement provides brands with a valuable feedback loop that can be channelled into multiple business areas, enhancing customer service, brand loyalty and even product design.

This is why when I am in a meeting with a brand communicator and he/she says to me they find the loss of control daunting when considering a digital campaign, I gently remind them that they can’t lose what they never had.

The writer is Nicholas Leong, associate director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies Singapore.