Monday, September 12, 2011

The Value of Social Networking...and Little League

As my readers know, I generally dislike making blanket statements about marketing.  We’ve all read enough articles entitled “The End of...” to know that few things ever really end in marketing.  Many media historians have pointed out that TV, broadly assumed to end radio as a channel, did not in fact do so.  Radio stopped serving as the go-to medium for entertainment, but it held--and still holds--a valuable place as a medium for music, news and talk.

Recently, many of those “The End of...” articles focused on social marketing, or more formally social network marketing, since the discussion inevitably involves Facebook and its ilk.  These articles tend to stress how social networks have upended the traditional media model, challenging it for its use by marketers.  While these articles rightly point to changes in consumers’ information-gathering habits, they doth protest too much, methinks.  The folks paying as much as $3.5 million for a 30-second spot in February’s Superbowl seem to find TV advertising very valid.

So how does social network marketing actually work?  Here’s my take

Traditional media marketing focused on sponsorship.  Marketers sponsored content by placing ads in print or broadcast.  You could even say they sponsored transit by putting billboards on highways and posters on trains and buses.  So these media gave marketers airtime.

At the same time, these media gave marketers credibility.  “As seen on TV” may sound like a cheesy piece of package copy, it actually suggests to me that consumers lend credence to any brand substantial enough to buy TV space.  More to the point, look how thick September’s issue of Vogue was.  It had 758 pages, of which ads constituted 584, or 77%.  Appearing in Vogue confers credibility to a fashion brand.  Similarly, appearing alongside NFL Football gives credibility to sporting goods.  Placement in movies and TV shows gives even more credibility to a brand.

Social marketing changes the equation.  Instead of sponsoring content, marketers sponsor consumers.  By encouraging consumers to talk about a brand, a marketer gets a small-scale version of the benefit of sponsoring a magazine or TV show.  They get airtime in the form of the consumer’s talking about the brand.  And, more importantly, they get credibility in the form of an endorsement, assuming the consumer has something positive to say.

Of course, social network marketing works on a different scale than mass media.  One mass media buy can reach millions; Facebook members have an average of 130 friends.  However, an increasing number of tools and agencies can help marketers achieve meaningful scale.

A discussion of which social networking techniques and practitioners work best lies beyond the scope of this blog.  Rather, I’d like to give my brief point of view on how to think about sponsoring consumers.  For that, I’d like to turn to a movie that has almost nothing to do with marketing:

Fans of the movie will remember the Bears’ sponsor:

Audiences found this sponsorship funny because Chico’s represented the antithesis of a Little League  sponsor.  So who does sponsor Little League teams?  Well, pizza joints, to name one category.  Why does it work?  Simple:

  • Kids play baseball and eat pizza
  • Parents like to support local businesses who help their kids

Marketers employing social networking should look for similar relationships.  They should seek to sponsor consumers who find their product relevant (kids) and who will in turn influence other buyers (parents).  In short, social network marketers really need to focus on the consumers who can and will influence, not simply everybody with a social networking ID.

I’m only scratching the surface of social networking.  What topics do you want to talk about?

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