To succeed in social media, marketers need to ask “why”

Before brands were “brands” and well before the ubiquitous belief that “content is king”, companies created materials to promote their products and communicate directly with consumers. The first American ad–for an Oyster Bay, Long Island estate in 1704–set the tone for the next 300 years. The consumer was told something was good and they were expected to believe what they read.

Brand communication was one-sided, shallow and non-conversational, but it was “content”. We just didn’t have the means to make it very engaging or shareable. From the printing press to newspapers and magazine ads to a 30-second TV spot—the opportunity to tell a story, or at least a narrative, was forced into the confines of predetermined, and financially limiting, media channels. As a result, when a brand wanted to talk to consumers, a great deal of time was spent focusing on how they would do this. A billboard? A full-page ad? A microsite? Answering the question of “How?” was as essential as the creative.

But in today’s world of limitless channels, that’s the wrong question. Thanks to social media, marketers, brands and their agencies face an infinite and relatively unconstrained means to connect with their audience. But untethered freedom poses as many problems as it does opportunities. Brands must engage with consumers via social channels. They must focus on creating conversations and social experiences that build long-lasting, deep relationships with consumers. Yet the content they create must be relevant not only to the brand but to its target consumer. Brands need to create two-way dialogues with consumers and deliver on these conversations. Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump makes perfect sense for Red Bull (they literally gave him wings), but will a Facebook app image generator really help launch a new light sneaker from Adidas?  

The Red Bull Stratos Facebook page

To do this, we as marketers need only ask one simple question: Why? Why would a consumer care? Why would you share? Why is this content relevant to the brand? As a far smarter man than me once said “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” (Nietzche).

The purification, speed of evolution, infinite ability to communicate, relatively low cost and the very newness of social media seems to have blinded an entire industry as to the most basic of filters. Brands and agencies alike invest heavily in consumer research to plan, pre-empt and guarantee a connection between the brand and the consumer. This insight is often invaluable, however with social content we all have the means to conduct the most fundamental research – would you, as an innately social being care enough to consume or share? If there is a hesitation, the social value of the content must be questioned.

The ongoing focus of how to execute (HTML5? Facebook app? app? etc) endangers the key to the most successful campaigns, regardless of channel, what is the human truth that binds the consumer to the concept and why is it appropriate for the brand to build on this connection?

Here are a few examples of campaigns that focus on the why:

– Red Bull – Stratos: A brand that never lets how stand in the way of why. A more literal and simple answer to the question of why is hard to imagine. The recent Stratos activity was so focused in its branded message, it enabled what remains a challenger brand to burst into the global mainstream media. 

– Coke – Open Happiness: Since 2009 Coke has been delivering on its promise to bring happiness to consumers lives with an on and offline campaign with social media at its heart. Why? Because everyone likes a little happiness.

– Procter & Gamble – Thank You, Mom: Standing out and achieving cut through during the branded onslaught of the 2012 London Olympics, this multi channel brand campaign succeeded largely as the result of a universal truth; Why is this the right brand for the Olympics? Because we all love our moms and P&G respects them.

And here are a few examples of activity focusing on how and ignoring the why:

– Adidas – H3lium app: A Facebook app that turns a random selection of personal photos into a Facebook masthead collage is mildly useful, but why is it relevant to a lightweight running shoe? Seemingly a photo of my mother, a drunken night in London and a snowy Catskills landscape embody the spirit of cutting edge sporting goods.

– General Electric – Healthyshare: Another Olympic-related campaign, and one with a noble aim – inspire a more healthy lifestyle for those not competing in the games. However, GE’s focus on driving users to a Facebook app has the feel of a campaign firmly focused on the how. You can hear the conversation, “We need an app. Yes a Facebook app would be popular”. Indeed it could be, if you are Nike, but why would the consumer share their intimate fitness goals with GE and why are they relevant.