Marketers Beware - Don't Hijack Nascent Social Networks

Traditional businesses were slow on the uptake when it came to leveraging Twitter and Facebook. The primary reason being that the resources simply hadn't been allocated to invest in social media. Today, however, that obviously isn't an option. A lot of businesses of varying sizes have dedicated community managers with a budget and a whole lot of time to take advantage of social interactions on the web.

This has resulted in an interesting trend - firms are not waiting for social networks to become popular; they're not going to take any chances when it comes to potentially missing the boat.

The problem with, however, is that what allowed Twitter and Facebook to become so popular is that they were so focused on relationships and connecting people - not maximising brand awareness!

Case and point - Jelly. A new question-answer based social network founded by Biz Stone (formally of Twitter).

It took only a few days before big brands such as GE, Ben & Jerry's, CNBC and others started asking questions. Don't get me wrong, they're the sort of questions - 'engaging', 'community-building', 'dialogue, not monologue' - that my lecturers at University impress on me as being vital.

But this lacks context, because if the ratio of brand related questions outweighs the genuine community then it's not going to take too long before any type of consumer - let alone the early adopter, geek, realises that they're just adding to a firm's brand metrics. This may have occurred with Jelly

Companies need to understand where they sit in the social media landscape and not jump onboard every opportunity that pops up or risk hurting the growth that they themselves are trying to capitalise on.

Dogfight

I've just finished 'Dogfight' by Fred Vogelstein. It's an interesting book, and I primarily purchased it in order to get some insight into the creation of the original iPhone and the early development of Android. The first few chapters focus on this and then tails off into a description of events that is fairly irrelevant to anyone who follows the tech press.

Here's a quote from an Apple employee about the iPhone's development:

"He [Jobs] loved to setup a division. But it was a big fuck you to the people who couldn't get in. Everyone knows who the rockstars are in the company".

It really harkens back to the original Macintosh days. What's so interesting about this approach is that it goes against a lot of the public messaging that Apple puts out. Apple is meant to be a cohesive firm that works towards a common goal with a single bottom line. But instead Apple decided to seclude them from the rest of the organisation in the name of secrecy.

Likewise, the software and hardware development for the phone was split. Each group couldn't see the other's work. Would the iPhone have been a better product if the software and hardware teams had worked closer together? On the face of it, probably yes -- it's called synergy.

But of course, operations is only one part of the organisational triangle, marketing and finance has a lot to say. Keeping the product secret is massively important for Apple in order to generate the necessary buzz. This leads to one of the key issues with projects within organisations:

How do you balance the needs of the project with the organisational goals?

Apple's reasoning seems pretty clear. You want the best people in the company, so we'll take them, and then we don't want any information leaking out to spoil the surprise, so we'll separate the project in two. You could definitely argue at the time that this is putting the needs of the project before the organisation.

Today though, you could argue that the iPhone project helped define the organisational goals for the next decade. In other words; Apple took a gamble and it paid off. The Mac didn't loose out because of the talent  migration and the iPod only declined because they cannibalised it so successfully with iOS devices.

Managing the Line Between Exclusivity & Community

Formula 1 is a very exclusive sport. The drivers are paid millions of pounds and so are the engineers. Grand prix are very expensive compared to other sports, a single grandstand seat can cost you a hundred pounds. The paddock is a strip of tarmac reserved for high flying guests and celebrities. All of this is part of the allure of Formula 1.

But the advent of social media has put pressure on the veil of exclusivity that surrounds the sport from all sides. In what is a very data driven sport, fans want to - and have a right to - information about the inner workings of the sport. Where a few years ago the only glimpse of the paddock was through your television as the presenters walked between the motorhomes; today you can see teams, engineers, drivers and press constantly tweeting about the goings on, often providing breaking news. No longer do we have to wait for daily press releases. Small glimpses of information from a top team boss or a spy shot of David Hasselhoff entering the Red Bull Racing motorhome wearing team kit! The paddock has never felt so close for an outsider.

So the question has to be asked, is this more transparent view better for Formula 1?

Perhaps the first question should be, who is 'Formula 1'? Right now, it's Bernie Ecclestone. And it's fair to say that he really likes the status quo. He wants to control the amount of information that goes out of the paddock to ensure it's all 'on message'. However, this is neither realistic nor sustainable and perhaps a legacy of the old Formula 1.

If Formula 1 wishes to at a minimum keep it's current fan base and then grow it, it needs to engage with social media. Every team does it in some way, others better than others. And what we've instead seen is a shift in the exclusivity spectrum. Perhaps best evidenced by Mercedes inviting a 'super-fan' to their factory to see their newest championship challenger before publicly unveiling it. Teams are offering unique experiences for a very small group of engaged fans as a reward.

The Formula 1 teams have realised that it is not enough for people to be fans of teams, they want to feel part of one. By releasing more information, fans on social media can feel like they are part of the team, and in turn become really powerful ambassadors for the team so they can grow their fan base in turn. Here are a few examples:

  • Ferrari let the public vote on the name of their car for the 2014 season.
  • Tony Fernandes (owner of Caterham) launched their car on his Twitter feed.
  • Mercedes offered Twitter Q&A sessions with their drivers.

Formula 1 has realised that community trumps exclusivity.