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Social Media Marketing: New Possibilities

Today, people spend more time on social media than any other type of website, and the way businesses engage with customers is rapidly evolving as a result. How exactly are brands reaching their audiences, and what does this mean for the future of marketing?

Out of 4.021 billion internet users worldwide, 3.196 billion are active social media users, and 2.958 billion actively use social platforms on mobile devices, according to Hootsuite’s 2018 statistics. This means around 80% of people who use the internet spend most of their time online using websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on. Naturally, companies are seizing the opportunity to change how they communicate with customers by reaching out to them where they spend most of their time.

hootsuite circle social statistics

Let’s talk about some of the possibilities of social media marketing, and how these can pose benefits or disadvantages for brands and consumers. We’ll consider the phenomenon from both perspectives, covering both what brands do and how their audiences respond to it.

Reaching An Audience

Why do brands create pages on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter? How and why do they build an audience? What do they hope to achieve, and how successful are they?

In oversimplified terms, it all comes down to boosting sales. But to make sales, a brand first needs to develop visibility, personality, and reliability, and all of those require an audience. And what better place to reach out to an audience than websites specifically designed for networking among large groups of like-minded people?

Furthermore, these websites gather statistics about their users, categorising them neatly into groups based on demographics and online behaviour. For example, Facebook provides companies with “powerful audience selection tools” to allow them to choose exactly what kind of audience they wish to market towards (say, single women between 25 and 35).

Additionally, social users are likely to voluntarily follow a brand they already like. They don’t need to be targeted, because they want to be kept in the loop. If they have friends that are similar or just like something, they might share content from the page, leading more traffic towards the brand. Or they may even promote the brand and/or its content accidentally, when their browsing activity shows up on a friend’s feed.

Audience selection tools and social sharing tools make it much more likely for brands to gain attention from people who are actually interested in their products and services. But that’s only the beginning of social media marketing.

Content, Posting Behaviour, and Interaction

What about posting behaviours, content, and audience engagement? What is the best way for a company to keep its followers, and stimulate them to make purchases?

rainbow bar graph brand actions social purchase

Look at the graph above by Sprout Social, and you’ll notice that the most successful thing a brand can do on social media in order to stimulate sales is simply to be responsive. It’s no surprise that people like to receive friendly and quick replies to their questions, especially on platforms that feature direct communication functions like instant messaging.

Second in the ranks is offering promotions. How often have you seen calls to action like “Use promo code *INSTA20* at checkout for 20% off” posted by brands on social media? People love discounts, and especially if they’re viewing posts from brands they might like or already follow. That is why promotional offers have a 46% chance of stimulating a customer to purchase.

Consumers also find it important to know exactly what they’re buying when they order things online. Now that physical stores are so often replaced by virtual spaces, and senses like smell, taste, and touch are often absent from the purchasing process altogether, communication is all the more important. This goes for communication between brands and customers as well as existing and potential customers. When you can’t use your own senses, you’re more likely to rely on those of others, making communication all the more important for a potential purchase.

At the same time, well-written information and excellent photography and graphic design have become increasingly important for similar reasons. People are exposed to advertisement more frequently than ever, and rather than getting a glimpse of a billboard or hearing a short voice clip on the radio, they can investigate more thoroughly and more instantaneously. Information is incredibly accessible, and that is why content is increasingly competitive.

The third, fourth, and fifth most successful things a brand can share on social media are educational content, interesting visuals, and jokes. From this, we can speculate that the three most important characteristics of successful content posted by brands on social media are information, aesthetics, and entertainment. Perhaps that is why the following graph by Pew Research Center looks the way it does:

As you may know, Facebook is an incredibly versatile platform. This makes it ideal for sharing a mixture of links, graphics, short text, and longer text, as well as directly messaging companies and individuals. Its features include a marketplace, payment gateways, event pages, fundraisers, groups, and so much more. All of these tools make it (and other sites like it) a great place for brands to successfully encourage their audience to buy their products and services.

Research and ROI

We’ve mentioned how valuable information about users is to social media platforms. That’s because social sites sell audience selection services to brands based on the detailed demographics they collect. But as well as benefiting the platform, online marketing allows companies to gather more information about their investments than ever, including what strategies are successful, and exactly how successful.

In the good old days, a company would rent a billboard, for example. People would see the billboard, and hopefully consider buying the product it advertised. Sales would likely go up over time. But it was impossible to know beyond an educated guess how many customers in the following month came because of the ad, or for other reasons. This could make it difficult to assess whether renting the billboard, paying a graphic designer, and buying printing materials was worthwhile in the first place.

marlboro man cigarettes billboard cowboy smoking

Marlboro Cigarettes billboard in Los Angeles, CA circa 1976

But today, we have the internet, and the internet supplies us with shockingly large amounts of perfectly precise statistics. If you buy an ad on Facebook, you’ll know exactly how many people clicked on it, and how many of those clicks led to sales. You can compare one post to another, assess the demographics that were most affected, figure out the best time to post, and so on. All the information you need to analyse and improve your social media marketing strategy is right there at your fingertips.

Customer Relationship Management and Accountability

Social media means instant communication, and this makes it a great tool for brands to manage their relationships with customers. It’s also a fantastic tool for customers to complain and hold companies accountable for their mistakes.

light blue bar graph tweets aimed at brands

Between 2013 and 2015, the Harvard Business Review observed a significant increase in Tweets aimed directly at brands and service providers. The graph above depicts the statistics for various industries. Presumably, the numbers have risen even faster in more recent years.

This increase goes to show that consumers around the world are more and more likely to expect direct and instant communication from brands. Whether they have complaints about service, issues with online systems, or questions about products, people increasingly use social media to seek resolutions. In return, brands are doing more to resolve issues, reward customers, and improve service operations, which betters their reputation and ultimately sales.

Social media also allows people to hold companies accountable. For example, bad service or misleading marketing often results in negative reviews. Political, environmental, and social issues are more likely to be raised and shared among larger numbers of people, potentially causing real consequences for the company.

The Future of Social Media Marketing

In many ways, the future of social media marketing is already here. But as online social platforms and their uses continue to expand and evolve, so will the ways brands and consumers interact online. What can we expect?

Some experts believe that one important development on the SMM front will be smart speaker systems. This is because when people use products like Alexa and Google Home, they expect one concrete answer rather than a list of links potentially containing the answer. This will cause serious changes in how we approach content overall.

Virtual reality is also expected to play a significant role, especially when it inevitably merges with social media. Imagine test driving a car you want to buy or taking a tour of your next Airbnb in VR! Though these possibilities are not quite mainstream yet, VR systems are already commercially available, so it probably won’t be long now.

Other interesting ideas to consider are government regulations, privacy concerns, the use of private over public platforms, and the increased use of computers to perform previously human functions on- and offline.

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