Social media: Advertising loves a buzzword

It’s all about social media, isn’t it? Not necessarily, says Eliza Williams

With the winds of change furiously buffeting the ad industry, nothing says you’re standing firm in the storm more clearly than being able to effortlessly drop the latest ad jargon into any conver­­sation. Turnover of these fashionable expres­sions is fast – 2009 saw previ­ously trendy terms such as ‘branded content’ fall cruelly by the wayside. ‘Integrated’ has been replaced by ‘trans­media’, while poor ‘viral’ has become so unpopular as to be dropped by d&ad as an awards category for next year (following a minor rant about the term by 2009 Viral Jury Chairman Michael Lebowitz in an interview for CR).

But 2009’s most bandied-about phrases were surely ‘social media’ and ‘crowd­sourcing’. Both terms fit the requirements for an adland buzzword perfectly, by being simultaneously authoritative and baffling (see also ‘aug­mented reality’, a big hit in the last 12 months).

As a term, ‘social media’ is beautifully vague. For some brands, just being on Twitter was enough (even if all you had to communicate were obscure facts about your brand, you were partici­pating in social media, man!). Other agencies used both Twitter and Facebook to pull off various marketing coups – Åkestam Holst and River Cresco in Stockholm analysed the content of Twitter feeds to supposedly identify how ‘hetero’ participants were (or not) for Stockholm Pride, while Crispin, Porter + Bogusky caused a media storm with its Burger King Whopper Sacrifice, which encouraged Facebook users to ditch friends in return for a free burger. These successes were few and far between, however, with both Facebook and Twitter remaining largely resistant to advertising, aside from as channels to promote broader campaigns taking place in other media. One of the most obvious examples of this was VCCP’s Compare The Meerkat campaign, which despite a well thought-out online presence, ultimately used the traditional strategies of combining a cute character with a striking tv campaign to achieve its impact. As an offshoot, Aleksandr the Meerkat now has over 600,000 fans on Facebook, though how many of these are interested in car insur­ance is unclear.

Other social media campaigns dug deeper. 42 Entertainment’s hugely complex Augmented Reality Game for the release of The Dark Knight wowed the judges at Cannes. In the UK, meanwhile, Made By Many created a website for ba, Metrotwin, where bloggers from both New York and London filed content about things to see and do in the two cities to a site that also highlights one of the airline’s most popular routes. Key to its success is its authenticity, with the opinions shared being free from any obvious corporate voice (although whether travellers will ultimately choose Metro­twin over estab­lished brands such as Time Out is open to question). Such authenti­city has become the holy grail for brands dabbling in digital, with the risks for corpo­rate companies attempting to reach consumers via stealth tactics now finally accepted as too great. Frankness has even spilled over into traditi­onal methods of advertising, with two of the UK’s most talked about campaigns, for Dixons.co.uk and the Evening Standard, adopting a knowing tone to show customers they under­stand their place in the market.

One of the most exciting campaigns this year placed social media at its core, but was also weaved across other channels both online and off. For its campaign for HBO’s new series of vampire show True Blood, New York-based agency Campfire intrigued fans and bloggers with mailers containing vials of ‘Tru Blood’, a beverage that appears on the show, the imbibing of which allows vampires to walk amongst humans. These led the recipients to online films and fictional websites that got everyone talking online. The campaign then weaved in further elements such as fictional news stories about vampires appearing in cities across the US, and authentic-looking poster ads for Tru Blood, in a sophisticated mix of storytelling and genuine ad strategies. Most import­antly, from Campfire’s perspec­tive, the audience picked up the story and retold their own versions of it via social media sites. The whole campaign provided an insight into how social media can step away from being just a buzzy expression and instead become a significant advertising tool, fullfilling the potential of what US academic Lawrence Lessig has termed (in a favourite adland quote) the shift away from a read-only culture toward a read/write one.

Customers, we are told, now ‘are’ the brand: they may also be the ad agency too as 2009 saw a number of brands realising the benefits of polling customers for ideas. Walkers placed crowd­sourcing at the heart of a major campaign by inviting fans of the crisp brand to suggest a new flavour, which would then be released. The shortlist included some enjoy­ably barmy propo­sitions, including Cajun Squirrel and Chili & Choco­late flavours, but ultimately sense prevailed and the nation chose Builder’s Break­fast as its favourite.

Else­where, Unilever felt that crowdsourcing offered such significant possibilities that it ditched its agency of record, Lowe London, for Peperami and instead turned to the public for suggestions of where to take the Peperami Animal character next. This result was perhaps not part of the ad industry’s plans when it began suggesting crowdsourcing as an option to clients.

As an antidote to this development, a new US agency, Victor & Spoils, has launched, specialising in crowdsourcing but strictly under the guidance of experi­enced ad agency creatives. It will be interesting to see how their work develops – while many criticise advertisers using crowdsourcing methods for being exploit­ative, the public’s eagerness to interact with their favourite brands belies this.

Despite their faddiness at present, social media and crowdsourcing are both methods that are likely to increase in the next few years, especially as effective­ness is proved and more of ad budgets get thrown this way. 2009 saw brands finally get over their fear of being exposed online and embrace public interaction, and they have been rewarded with huge enthusiasm in return. Astute advertisers will see too that social media can be used to put out fires that might light up around their brands, as well as being used to fan them.

And so to 2010, and a whole new raft of ad jargon. What will be the buzzwords next year? Let’s crowdsource to find out….

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