With millions of us glued to our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts each day, social media offers a captive and – as yet – relatively untapped audience for business.
According to the social media management platform Sprout Social there are 20,000 people on Facebook at any second of the day and, as of 2016, Twitter boasted an average of 310 million monthly users. The potential for businesses that can tap into these platforms is enormous.
So what has modern social media got to do with the rather traditional sounding Natural Environment Research Council?
Earlier this year NERC asked the nation to help it come up with a name for its new polar research ship via social media. And how the nation responded.
The suggestion ‘Boaty McBoatface’ became a sensation, engaging 23 million people on Twitter who used the #NameOurShip hashtag. In the end the organisers decided to name their new polar research ship after Sir David Attenborough but it didn’t detract from the success of the campaign, which was masterminded by creative agency Blue Stag.
Creative director Dan Sargent says the secret to success for viral campaigns is that they give brands the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with their audience.
“Instead of being advertised or sold to, customers feel part of the brand and revel in their opinions being valued,” he says. “This is why social media is so powerful.”
In order to enable this, businesses must tap into digital, says Sargent.
“Successful campaigns find the sweet spot between strategy, technology, creativity and emotion. When these points neatly cross over each other, the result will be an authentic, entertaining and manageable,” he explains.
“Digital technology provides the means to amplify the engagement and reach of a campaign. The #NameOurShip microsite was an important part of the campaign.
“While social media drove the conversation the site helped create the experience and gave the campaign somewhere to live.”
At the end of the day though, the human element is what drives the operation.
“A campaign shouldn’t simply be measured by its reach but also by the audience’s emotional response to it. If an aim of a campaign is to ‘go viral’ then it probably won’t succeed. Instead, campaigns should focus on sending the right message to the right people,” he says.
Tom Murphy is co-chief creative officer at New York-based advertising agency McCann. He agrees with Blue Stag that at the heart of a successful campaign is finding something that moves people.
“You generally start by looking at the behaviours that exist?on those channels, and figure out how your brand could play a meaningful role within them,” he says.
This is easier said than done though, and many businesses that have tried to start a campaign will testify how hard it is to make people care about something enough to want to share it, especially in an increasingly noisy world.
Murphy describes the feeling of a campaign going viral as “thrilling and slightly addictive”, and it’s this emotion that needs to be at the core of any campaign from the start.
“The nature of social media campaigns will keep changing as quickly as the social media landscape changes,” he says. “But what will not change is the need to create things that genuinely create value for people – whether utility or a simple laugh.”?
Tania Jackson is director of London-based digital marketing agency Red Idea. She believes that great visuals are vital when trying to stand out from the crowd.
She cites a recent campaign the agency did to promote a programme on C4 – she can’t name names but says that a mix of graphics, videos and GIFs worked well. Pretty pictures alone aren’t enough though – you need to find interesting ways to relate the campaign to your product.
“We animated some of the pictures for the campaign in fun ways because this particular programme has two specific people the followers love. We made funny jokes with them playing around and created GIFs of them sharing some banter; they got loads of click-throughs and at one point we were trending across London.”
Once this relationship with the audience has been established, continued interaction is vital. “The public like being asked questions,” says Jackson. “‘Where are we going to be tomorrow, what shall we do, can you help me with this?’
“It gets lots of people engaged; they’ll say ‘you should be on the beach’, or some people joke and say ‘you should be in my house, or in bed with me’.”
This might seem like an invitation for disaster in the current climate of trolling – where people deliberately try and cause controversy online – and audiences who won’t hesitate to air grievances in public.
If you’re nervous about negative comments, the key is to deal with them straight away, says Jackson. “People feel they’re being heard and stop being negative. It’s like a bad apple between good apples; if you don’t give it attention it’ll destroy the good ones.
“Send them a direct message to say you noticed the comment and ask how you can help. Obviously you’re not going to change the production but at least they feel their comment has been taken on board.”
To ensure a recipe for social success you must avoid the common pitfall of not doing enough research and planning beforehand. “Before any campaign you need to understand the audience and the products you’re selling,” she says.
As for the future, video is vital. “Originally social platforms were just for content,” she says. “Then pictures, then media, then videos and GIFs, and now Facebook Live shares videos daily. I think streaming live videos will take social to another level as people start to use them for business.”
For those that are sceptical about the business value of social media, the figures speak for themselves. “One of our clients started with 1,000 followers and by the end of our first campaign he had 5,000 followers,” says Jackson. “It really engaged people; it wasn’t just followers but retweets and questions, and he had good sales that month too.”
Ultimately, it’s a long-term strategy though. “Of course you’re going to have some hype in the short-term; people will start coming to your website and tweeting about you, and you’ll think ‘wow, this is happening’. It definitely raises your profile, and depending on your products they might buy straight away, but they’ll start to get to know you.”
Influencers – people who have widespread reach on social media – can help with this, says Jackson. “A person who didn’t buy this month might buy the next because an influencer mentioned you. Long-term is very important and, for channel marketing, social media needs to be part of that.”
Tom Booth is managing director at Manchester-based marketing and social media agency Forever Digital, and he agrees that influencers are a vital part of the process.
“No campaign is ever guaranteed to go viral. Influencers are critical,” he says. “It all depends on their audience and how engaged they are to the relevance.”
This engagement with audience is crucial to the success of not just social media campaigns, but business in a broader sense, says Booth, and social media is a way of achieving it.
“If people don’t feel or see brands in these new ways then they don’t feel or see us in their life anymore. Brands must be leaders; it’s our responsibility to lead online brand strategy, not just manage it.”
Top 5 tips for a successful campaign
- Visual – A picture is worth a thousand words and should be the crux of any social campaign
- Interactive – Questions will get your audience involved and make them much more likely to share
- Meaningful – It has to be something that your audience cares about, whether characters from a show or something that taps into emotions
- Influencers – Use influencers to build trust and engage potential customers
- Involvement – Respond quickly to capitalise on any interest following a campaign, and tackle any negative interaction head on