It’s not easy being a marketer in the era of social media. A hotel chain, for example, might spend millions promoting a set of strong and consistent marketing messages—only to find them undermined by a travel site like TripAdvisor. Or a high-end restaurant accustomed to touting its stellar Zagat ratings could be compromised by lukewarm reviews on restaurant opinion site Yelp.
These new kinds of digital advisers and opinion aggregators, which compile independent and unfiltered reviews from users and consumers, operate beyond marketers’ control and have significant power to shape consumer opinion, behavior and spending.
This is a new fight for consumer influence, and companies that do not have adequate battle plans are at risk of being seriously wounded.
To do better, marketing executives and corporate leadership teams should work to understand all sources of influence on consumers and the impact those sources have on buying behaviors. They should consider their organization’s existing aptitude to exert influence through those sources and then decide on the most appropriate tactical approaches to positively affect their customers’ behaviors.
Consider the source
Companies need to understand the different ways that the Internet and new media have changed how customers find and absorb information about their organization’s reputation and products. What’s most critical is for companies to take a comprehensive approach to understanding social media’s impact on customers—an approach that considers all major sources of influence.
This chart illustrates the new and enhanced sources of buyer influence that can sway consumers. Companies should be aware of where customers are currently getting their information, and determine the extent to which each source of influence motivates their customers to make a purchase or, on the other hand, how it might be a demotivator. What is the primary influencing factor? Are typical customers looking for trusted advice, credible expertise or broad consensus about quality and reliability?
For each source of buyer influence noted in the chart, marketing departments should decide on the set of actions right for their company’s goals. Central to the effort: an assessment of their organization’s capabilities to exert influence through different sources, including social media.
Four options—engage, redeploy, learn or monitor—should form the core of a marketer’s tactical playbook in the new battle for consumer influence.
Engage. If a company’s analysis shows that a particular source of influence is highly motivating to its customers, and if the company feels it has the capabilities to either directly advise consumers through this source or effectively direct them toward it, then the company should press ahead with its efforts. For example, Disney’s advertising for its 2009 animated film Up touted the movie’s 98 percent “Fresh” score on online opinion aggregator RottenTomatoes.com in addition to more traditional blurbs from professional film reviewers. Some industry observers may have felt this was an unusual marketing approach to take, but MGM’s marketing chief told the Los Angeles Times: “People want to know what the consensus is. . . . People don't pay as much attention to individual voices as to the aggregate score.”
Redeploy. Just because a company can successfully reach customers through a particular source of influence doesn’t necessarily make it a wise investment. Companies must be able to assess whether reaching customers through a particular source is wasted effort when it comes to actually influencing them. General Motors recently pulled all its paid advertising from Facebook. Yet, as GM’s director of social media tweeted, “We have more than 8 mil friends on FB; not leaving them; engagement & content isn’t same as advertising.” GM’s ability to distinguish between two different sources of information—paid advertising on the one hand, and social media on the other—and the decision to continue one and not the other, is a notable example of the “redeploy” strategy.
Learn. In cases where customers are highly influenced by a certain source but a company’s ability to bring its messages to consumers through that source is limited, a company may be better off simply observing and learning as a way to build capabilities. This tactic is especially important for new and untested sources of influence. Take yogurt brand Chobani’s slow but steady engagement on the social media site Pinterest. That site enables users to grab and save images from across the Web and, according to Adweek, has 11.7 million unique visitors in the United States alone. The digital communications manager for Chobani explained to Adweek that the company joined the site after spotting its fans sharing recipes and pictures. The company recently began reaching out to and sharing content with some 2,000 followers over the site—a modest entry, but one that will enable the company to learn the ins and outs of the social media platform.
Monitor. Companies may decide that, at the moment, they do not need to be heard through a particular source, or that they have insufficient know-how about how to have influence within that source. In those cases, it may be better to stay out of direct fire. But that doesn’t mean they should be entirely absent. Monitoring the advice that does reach consumers from various sources can yield powerful businesses insights. Kraft Foods in particular adapts its products to reflect trends in food-related social media discussions. An executive at Kraft’s Oscar Mayer division told InformationWeek.com that social media research “allows us to explore the fuzzy front end of basic user wants or needs, like what are the flavor trends, what are the usage trends.” Monitoring these alternate sources of information provides the company with, according to the executive, “a vast data set, bigger than any data set I ever had, and it's being refreshed constantly.”
The Internet and social media have created new sources of power over consumers’ attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. Marketers must constantly monitor how their customers are being influenced and take appropriate action—and they must be willing to reevaluate their tactics continuously to ensure they are making the most effective response. In the fight for consumer influence, operating without a battle plan is risky at best.
About the authors
Paul F. Nunes is the executive director of research at the Accenture Institute for High Performance.
Joshua B. Bellin is a research fellow with the Accenture Institute for High Performance.