Download the full study (PDF file)
Popularity. You can't just request it. As companies amass ever-larger collections of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and YouTube audiences, they should ask themselves one question: What are we doing with them? "There is a lot of wasted effort in social media," says Erich Joachimsthaler, managing director at Vivaldi Partners, an international brand consultancy. "We forget that these programs have to pay into something, a shared value or a social context where the product actually gets used."
What's valuable isn't mere buzz but what Joachimsthaler calls "social currency." "There's more to 'social' than social media," he says. A new study by Vivaldi Partners and Lightspeed Research, which fielded the data, examines more than 60 companies and assesses customers' brand affiliations, advocacy, and sense of community, among other factors, for how they create true value for the companies, no matter whether it's online or off. The results reveal some surprising insights about the limits of social media. Most notably, smug, stunt-driven apps, games, and videos generate buzz but little else. So what does work? We combed through Vivaldi's data to find the most intriguing lessons. Here are the new rules for the game.
1. Advocates Trump Followers
Dunkin' Donuts has 80% fewer Facebook and Twitter followers than Starbucks. Game over? Hardly. Dunkin' Donuts fans are 35% more likely to recommend the brand, according to the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study. Whereas Starbucks spends its energy telegraphing its superiority (and by extension, its fans' good taste) — "If it's still not perfect, you must not be in a Starbucks" — Dunkin' takes a more advocacy-driven approach. Its director of interactive and relationship marketing, David Tryder, has just two rules for his online campaigns: make them fun and make them cheap. Promotions are built around turning real people into online celebrities and then endorsers. For instance, a quickie contest for customers to submit pics of themselves drinking iced coffee during the winter was matched with an in-store discount. One-hundred-forty submissions ultimately generated 3.9 million total product plugs through posts and status updates. Dunkin's online-only create-the-next-doughnut contest drew 290,674 different entries this year and has become an annual event. These initiatives help explain why people are 50% more likely to have heard good things about Dunkin' than Starbucks. "It's about all the interesting little things that let fans engage," Tryder says.
2. Context Matters
What do beer drinkers talk about? Not what brewers think they will, the study concludes. Who cares if a beer is triple-hopped in an ultra-cold bottle? "Product and packaging innovations do not help create relevance in this consumer's daily life," Joachimsthaler says. What's important is the bonding or "social context" during consumption. Anheuser-Busch's ballyhooed bud.tv, an original Web-video site, tacitly encouraged being a solitary Web potato — and quietly folded last year. Similarly, those Bud Light Lime ads on the Weather Channel's iPhone app won't help partiers reach the beach. Bud's attempt to brand "fan cans" in collegiate colors for tailgating was the right kind of bonding idea, though, sadly for Bud, it failed when colleges feared the cans would encourage underage drinking. Even so, who wouldn't share the tale of that time their beer was confiscated?
3. Not Every Brand Should be Social
Mass-market brands that are positioned based on functional superiority, such as Gillette, aren't likely to see much upside in social currency. The shaving brand inspires great loyalty: 96% of respondents in the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study tout Gillette's good quality and reliability. So what more is there to say? That may be a good thing for the Gillettes of the world. "Conversation might lead to a discussion of downsides such as price and alternative products and brands," says Markus Zinnbauer, a director at Vivaldi. Yet Gillette has succumbed to the siren song of social tools in a series of supposedly humorous YouTube videos featuring cartoon characters giving tips on how to "manscape" your nether regions. Glib koans such as "When there's no underbrush, the tree looks taller" prove the point: Social isn't for everyone.
4. Social Tools are a Means, Not an End
Axe knows how to push the pulse points of hormonal young men, from posting "censored" print ads of sexy women to virtual prank shows worthy of CollegeHumor. But "very few people would say Axe definitely helps me in the mating game," as Joachimsthaler dryly notes. The Vivaldi-Lightspeed study concludes that Axe's mastery of the social-media game doesn't translate as strongly into meaningful talk or an ardent defense when compared with a brand such as Clinique, because the Axe audience knows that it's all a goof.
By contrast, Clinique's more instructive approach — for example, YouTube how-to tutorials on applying makeup — has earned it stronger social currency. "Educating and empowering users is part of our process," says Emily Culp, VP of Clinique global digital. To do that, the company also chooses 20 "insiders" a year, customers who post candid, unedited product demos and critiques. The results more than speak for themselves. "Clinique has moved away from finding a core influencer," Joachimsthaler says, "to converting anyone into a brand evangelist."
5. Gimmicks Marginalize Trust
Last year, Wendy's launched the "You Know When It's Real" campaign, with commercial spots, online games, and contests highlighting how its never-frozen patties are cooked to order. Burger King created the Whopper Sacrifice, asking its fans to drop 10 friends on Facebook to get a free hamburger, the latest in a long string of Internet-sensation stunts going back to 2003's Subservient Chicken. Today, BK's fickle fans have moved on, but customers trust Wendy's products much more, according to the Vivaldi-Lightspeed study. "We let the product be the hero," says Wendy's senior VP of communications Denny Lynch. Wendy's social tools, created by Kaplan Thaler, all tied into the campaign. A generic frozen patty is the puck in the Web hockey game, and an online competition to encourage bacon fanatics to test the new smoked Applewood burger reached an estimated 250,000 foodies, says Kaplan Thaler's digital managing director Myles Kleeger. "By using expert opinions, we added value in a way that doesn't come across like shilling," he says. Twice as many Wendy's patrons would pay a premium for its products when compared with the King, says Vivaldi-Lightspeed. BK's ploys, created by ad stars such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky and the Barbarian Group, may do more for those agencies' social currency than Burger King's. "The BK campaign might be funny," says Joachimsthaler, "but it doesn't motivate me to have a hamburger at BK today."
Download the full study (PDF file)
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.