The growing use of social media in marketing communications

Successful social media campaigns feature taboo-breaking approaches and high levels of humour


The first conclusion from a new report on effective social media campaigns published by the World Advertising Research Centre, (WARC), says it all; Growth in the usage of social media has outpaced growth in objective understanding of how to use it effectively for communications.

This is hardly surprising given such a rapid proliferation of new communication channels which are growing exponentially but without the documented back-up in case history format which has been built up over the years for longer established media. However, the wide range of campaigns featured in the report are now yielding valuable insights into how social media can contribute to marketing communications.

Let’s take three examples to illustrate the main conclusions.

The first is a Hellman's campaign from Canada. It began in 2006 when the brand became associated with processed fast foods to such an extent that it became known as 'junk in a jar'.

In reality the product consists of just three ingredients, eggs, oil and vinegar, but it was felt that an ingredient only campaign wouldn't be convincing enough to remove the negative perceptions so the marketing team decided to champion a 'real food movement'.

They began with an urban garden initiative by taking over plots of land in cities which people could then apply to use to grow vegetables. A web-site was created to supply growing tips, recipes and details of local food suppliers. The web-site used blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook Content to encourage dialogue and support local producers and 300,000 gardening gloves were given away in an on-pack promotion.

In the first three years of the campaign Hellman's market share increased from 25 per cent to almost 30 per cent. The campaign then moved into schools to develop healthy eating habits for children and there is an interesting video on YouTube showing schoolchildren and their teachers cheering as a huge dumper truck demolishes the school's fat fryer in the school yard. (To view a video of the of the fryer being demolished check “bye, bye fat fryer” on YouTube).

National Australia bank represents another example of the power of social media to amplify marketing communications campaigns. One of the four big Australian banks it had tried to differentiate itself from its competitors by removing some charges but the overall level of hostility towards the sector meant that something more dramatic would be required to achieve the objective.

The result was a very public declaration of independence by NAB under the slogan; 'it's all over between us'. The campaign was preceded by an 'accidental' Tweet from the bank expressing regret that their action will upset the other banks. This was followed by a wide variety of promotional stunts in a single day to attract maximum impact.

These included the release of sixty films showing NAB banks breaking off with other banks, events outside other banks offices, outside expensive places where senior people in other banks might have lunch, posters flown by air over cities and pianists outside their offices announcing 'you're dumped'. Meanwhile blogs were running continuously telling people how easy it is to leave your current bank; 'breaking up is easy to do'. The bank earned up to $5 million in publicity and saw a 20 per cent increase in new accounts. It was all very irreverent, very Australian and very effective. (You can see the more details of the campaign on YouTube; look for “National Australia Bank, Bank Break-Up”)

The third example is my favourite. It comes from the town of Troy in Michigan where the council faced the familiar problem of making cuts to avoid having to increase taxes. They decided to close the local library and a well-funded campaign by the local tea party activists supported the proposal with a vigorous denunciation of tax increases. Controlling the conversation is a classic tactic in any communications campaign and being seen to be on the side of higher taxes was never going to work. But supporters of the library, who had a budget of only $3500, came up with a brilliant piece of counter-intuitive thinking. Instead of attacking the proposal they supported it placing stickers all over town announcing the date of the closure and urging everyone to celebrate it with a book-burning party. This bold tactic produced a predictably outraged response on social media sites which was promptly seeded and amplified but the campaign organisers had correctly anticipated that book-burning, like incest, is taboo in our societies, so when voting day arrived there was a huge majority against the proposal and the library remains open. (Once again you can see a video of the campaign on YouTube-Save the Troy Library by looking for “Adventures in Reverse Psychology”)

These are just some of the case histories described in the report but they give a flavour of the emerging lessons about how social media can be used to enhance marketing communications.

The first conclusion, which is now gaining widespread acceptance is that social media works best when combined with traditional media. The second characteristic of successful campaigns involving social media is that they pack a powerful creative punch, often featuring taboo-breaking approaches and high levels of humour. But perhaps the most interesting conclusion is that many of the most successful campaigns involve the creation of mass movements mobilising people in ways which transcend the narrow confines of the product or service category.

In this respect they are all cultural campaigns based on an acute understanding of societal anxieties and aspirations whether it's concerns about unhealthy eating and obesity, anger at the irresponsible behaviour of the financial services sector or a recognition that communal 'goods' are a necessary requirement of a civil society.

Given the level of societal anxieties in Ireland at present it will be interesting to see if any of our advertisers are tempted down the mass mobilisation route.

John Fanning is a lecturer at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School