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Humans are social creatures. We are naturally predisposed to interact and empathize one with the other, and the ways we communicate are sophisticated and made perfect by centuries of practice. Over time, we have developed an increasing number of channels and technologies to boost the strength and reach of our messages, from signal fires and passenger pigeons to radio, television, and ultimately the Internet.
The Internet has been the most recent game changer, especially since the rise of the so-called Web 2.0 and the vast success of social media. Interestingly enough, while the everyday use of social media typically concerns our private lives, it is brands and businesses that are more strongly impacted by the revolutionary power of this surge in user-generated content.
In the old mass-media paradigm, which worked perfectly for radio and television, the communication model of businesses with their customers was “one to many”: brands could broadcast their message, and consumers had no way of verifying the claims made in those advertisements if not by directly testing the product (although some word-of-mouth was undoubtedly present).
While this model still exists for the channels it was designed for (namely radio and TV, as mentioned), the power of the Internet has weakened its efficiency: we now have at our fingertips, through our phones, the ability to research and verify a claim while the ad is still running. An entire ecosystem has developed on the web to provide consumers with information about brands: multi-million dollar companies (like TripAdvisor or Yelp) have built their entire business model on peer-generated review systems, which have been around long enough to be target of not-so-sincere reviews generated by businesses selling their feedback by the pound (or by the word).
Nonetheless, despite the dubious accuracy of some reviews, what is important to note is that customers have been empowered by access to information. As a consequence, messaging from brands has changed to respond to the evolution of the customer’s profile. Communication on the web, and in a world deeply interconnected with the Internet, is no longer “one to many” but “many to many,” since a more personalized and tailored approach is required.
Brands no longer have to worry uniquely about their messaging, as the active subject of communication; they also have to listen closely to what their customers are saying about them, as objects of the communication. Additionally, Internet users choose the content they want to consume; this is at the same time a challenge and an opportunity for brands to engage with opinion leaders and ultimately their target clientele.
In this respect, opinion leaders are more efficient in spreading a brand’s value than traditional testimonials because they are independent and freely choose to promote a product versus another; users are more likely to trust this kind of promotion as sincerely genuine, and therefore act upon it.
This kind of trust may also generate chaos when false information is deliberately circulated (fake news) and businesses are now often feeling the collective wrath of their customers when their behavior fails to respond to customer expectations (see the United Airlines incident where a passenger was dragged, beaten and bleeding, out of the plane).
However, while it is true that mistakes also tend to very easily snowball into a reach of epic proportions, way more than positive feedback, the pace of social media is so fast that the average lifespan of a hashtag is just a few hours: even the most disastrous marketing campaigns fail to leave a lasting footprint on consumer behavior in the long run, simply because there will always be a new trending topic that will require the attention of the Twitterverse.
Ultimately, a savvy use of social media channels, following the rules of communication 2.0, enables conversations between a brand and its customers in ways that were unthinkable not so long ago. The ability to generate, participate in and monitor online conversations is the pillar of inbound marketing, a powerful tool supporting direct sales for all businesses which have an e-commerce component or need to improve or maintain brand recognition. The world has changed, but is definitely more interesting.