Social media’s role in the evolution of communication
This post is provided by our partner the Future Foundation, the leading consumer futures business.
During the relatively short period of time for which they have been in existence, social media platforms have exerted an intense pressure on our industries. And given the whistle-stop speed with which a message or meme can now be transmitted across groups of friends – and, in the process, potentially transform a market overnight – marketers are increasingly focusing their energy on monetising this new platform. In a way there is an amusing touch of Magic Nostalgic about this – word of mouth is after all the oldest form of marketing.
In this post, however, I want to go deeper into the subject and look at how social media platforms have fundamentally altered the way in which we communicate with our peers – as well as how this has imbued word-of-mouth with a renewed sense of potency.
In the past, if I wanted to check up on a friend, send my parents a message or ask my brother for his recommendations about which mobile phone I should buy, I had to contact them directly. This was the age of active communication – one where it was difficult to manage a large network of friends or contacts because of the time-intensive and potentially costly one-on-one form of communication which was required. And thus conventional marketing activity could operate relatively safely because the speed at which marketers could transmit a message across the consumer population generally exceeded the rates at which consumers could communicate with one another.
In the early stages of the web, however, and as mobile telephony began to take off, it become ever easier for us to communicate in groups. The advent of e-mail and SMS meant that messages were able to move around groups of friends quickly and easily, accelerating the speed with which word-of-mouth recommendations could influence purchase decisions.
Today we find ourselves in the age of the social web, where communication has evolved to be ‘many-to-many’ rather than one-to-one. Our friends, contacts and acquaintances are sharing messages, ideas, photos and content – broadcasting 24/7 in a way which allows us to tune in or out as desired. We are connected to everyone in our past and present in a network where maintaining simultaneous contact with numerous individuals involves a more “passive” form of communication. Of course, “revolutions” in personal communication are far from new and the introduction of innovations designed to make contact faster, simpler or easier have been a feature of the consumer landscape for centuries (stretching as far back as telegrams, carrier pigeons and beyond). Yet for me, the switch from active to passive communication is one of the most fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour we have ever seen.
In this environment, our natural instinct to talk and share has spectacular ramifications for marketers – namely that, long before any officially sanctioned marketing communications have reached a consumer, they will very likely have been exposed to the brand in question through hearing about their friends’ experiences (whether positive or otherwise).
Back in 2008, we undertook a scenario planning exercise for the IPA on the effect that the Networked Society would have on the advertising industry and one particular observation from that report has now been reinforced on multiple occasions:
“…every member of a target audience for a communication or campaign is not simply a recipient, or even an active consumer of the message – now they are also a transmitter of messages within the context of their networks. This requires a completely different evaluation of the value and potential of an individual within an overall campaign and new ways of measuring the network effects of any communication”
This is precisely the commercial landscape in which we now find ourselves. We are the TripAdvisor generation, more than happy to broadcast our experiences across our networks. And thanks to the arrival of passive communication, whatever we say will spread with such speed and reach that few PR departments are able to react in a timely enough fashion. To see this in action, we might look to the now infamous case of a Houston restaurant which ejected a patron for tweeting that a member of the bar staff was a ‘twerp’. Old-fashioned insults aside, reading the timelines of those involved gives you an idea of how quickly this story spread across the world and how difficult it is to keep up with the Networked Society.
There are a number of strategies that have emerged to respond to this shift. The most comprehensive is to monitor, anticipate and intercept – continually tracking our messages as they fly across consumers’ networks to analyse where and why they gain traction (and how they might be twisted into something negative). However, to realise the full potential of this approach requires significant analytical agility to keep ahead of the message and to understand what role each individual plays within their wider networks.
By far the simplest is to put customer service at the heart of every single channel. Easier said than done. We are still in the early days of the truly multi-channel world and, since the tone to which consumers respond varies according to the medium in question, it can sometimes prove difficult to maintain service excellence across all channels. However, with nVision Research showing that 49% of the UK population say that they have taken their custom to a different shop or company because of poor customer service, the effort is clearly worthwhile. Disappoint someone – anyone, in fact – and their grievances will most certainly find an audience; in e-space, everyone will eventually hear a customer scream. And if we aren’t careful, we will certainly be among the last to do so.
Matt Taylor is Head of Innovation at the Future Foundation, the leading international consumer futures business. Since our launch in 1996, we have worked to meet the strategic needs of businesses through the application of insight. We identify, measure and examine trends, attitudes and behaviours through the rigorous analysis of quantitative and qualitative research. Our robust programme of research provides businesses with the grounding and confidence to anticipate the likely impact of the evolving consumer environment and identify new market and revenue opportunities. Let us assist your thinking, guide your decisions and drive your profits.
For further information visit www.futurefoundation.net