Who’s to blame for the social media campaign

by James Duthie on November 19, 2009

The current Toyota social media “pitch off” has created debate far and wide across the Interwebs (background here). It has even attracted the attention of leading global industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang. In many ways, the topicĀ  has become a philosophical debate on “proper” corporate social media implementation. In one corner we have the purists (with Laurel leading the charge), who advocate ongoing community engagement and participation. In the other corner we have pragmatic marketers, who need to turn client interest into agency revenue in a practical manner – aka campaigns. While more of a purist myself, I also need to approach the issue pragmatically as an agency employee. And at the end of the day, different approaches will suit different businesses. So you’d expect to see a split between both styles of social media engagement in the market. Except that we don’t. Within Australia at least, there seem to be a clear skew towards the campaign approach. Recent work by Warner, V Australia, Tooheys, Nissan & Levis is testament to that. And while many of these campaigns are neat executions, you have to wonder about the long-term value they deliver the client. Why aren’t we seeing more case studies based upon ongoing community engagement, like Holden? And more to the point… who is it that’s actually pushing the campaign agenda… the client or the agency…?

Before I enter the debate I should clarify that I do believe that the social media campaign has a place. The campaign is a viable approach in a range of different situations such as:

  • When the brand is weak
  • When a new product is being launched and needs to generate buzz
  • When the product has a limited life cycle or a time dependency
  • When the product is low involvement and natural engagement is unlikely

Interestingly, the Toyota case study meets none of these scenarios. In fact, it’s almost the polar opposite. So why was the campaign approach favoured? It’s hard to say. Especially when Toyota is already dedicated to the ongoing management of an impressive Facebook community (aka the purist approach).

In this particular case, Toyota was clearly pushing the agenda (no agency would volunteer a 5 way pitch). But agencies can be just as guilty of a campaign bias. Let’s take a look at the motivations both parties have for a campaign style implementation…

The Agency

Social media presents an interesting monetisation quandary for agencies. Indeed, I’ve been working through how to build a viable revenue model within our own agency. From an agency perspective, there is no question about which approach is easier to manage and monetise. The campaign approach. A campaign style implementation allows the agency to apply their established skill set in a conventional manner:

  • Generate a creative/big idea in order to generate eyeballs
  • Produce assets to support the campaign theme (micro site, Facebook app, display advertisements etc)
  • Market that campaign in order to drive awareness and eyeballs (display advertising, search, mobile etc)
  • Measure results (hopefully)
  • Walk away

Conversely, the purist approach is far more difficult for an agency to monetise (although it’s still very much possible). It relies on a consultative approach rather than a technical one. Ironically, it is the simplicity of the purist approach that creates the difficulty. Rather than big ideas it relies simply on engaging with customers regularly and creating positive brand experiences. It entails monitoring of social environments, rather than the production of them. It entails speaking with customers rather than at them. And it requires an ongoing commitment of dedicated resourcing.

In short, it’s almost completely opposite to how agencies currently make money. So I guess you could say there’s a pretty clear bias in place…

The client

While the agency is motivated by cash and convenience, most clients are motivated simply by comfort. Social media is new. It’s different. It’s scary (iSnack 2.0 anyone…?). Few clients that I have met are willing to make the quantam leap from ground zero into a full-blown social media engagement. Indeed, conservatism is the dominant sentiment towards social media within many Australian businesses, aside from the not-for-profit sector.

Those businesses brave enough to enter the social web typically look for a way to test the waters, which is understandable. Thus, the campaign approach presents the perfect comfort zone for them. Indeed, many client briefs will instruct agencies to present a campaign style solution. The campaign becomes an experiment likely to determine future adoption of social media on a larger scale. Which tends to suit the agency just fine…

Chicken and egg scenario?

At the end of the day, the question of who should shoulder the blame is probably a classic chicken and egg scenario. There are valid arguments for each side of the story. In reality, it’s likely that both sides are contributing to the outcome.

My hope is that the agencies are simply using campaigns as a gateway to lead clients into more expansive long-term projects. I know that’s been my strategy when pitching for campaign based projects. Because while a campaign might create temporary buzz, it’s unlikely to contribute to real long-term business benefits such as customer advocacy or customer retention (which the purist approach certainly can achieve).

What do you think? Are agencies in it just for the short-term buck? Or do they really have a longer-term plan in mind for the client…?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

inspiredworlds November 19, 2009 at 2:49 am

Toyota must have seen an episode of the Apprentice where two sides pitch against each other and decided to implement it in real life =p

Are they trying to push a new model of the Yaris or generate awareness of the car? Because I’ve been following three of the campaigns (Population – best state, One Green Bean – WerewolfinYaris, and the video one) and I still don’t know what it is about.

Also, I think everyone just uses the campaign based approach because it is the easiest to implement and has ROI, and they are used to it from traditional advertising. Short burst, or pulse marketing.

James Duthie November 20, 2009 at 1:48 am

@Matt – It’s hard to analyse the campaign properly without seeing the brief, but based on the executions it seems as if maximum reach is the goal. Very much old school, campaign style thinking.

@crowdmanage November 29, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Most client-side employees are comfortable with campaigns, because they are something that they can explain to management, and use to justify budget (and their jobs).

If you are an in-house marketing exec. and you pitch hiring a firm for community engagement, then you are not going to be able to easily show a product to management.

Marek December 9, 2009 at 3:48 am

Great post James.

Don’t you think like all great marketing, there should be a strategy that can then be executed with campaignable ideas?

Step 1: create a social media strategy that dictates the long-term engagement & relationship building.
Step 2: Implement campaign executions in line with that strategy that enliven and develop further the community.

In my view, Step 1 is an activity run by the client, with the advice or strategic direction of an agency/consultancy who have a close working knowledge of the client’s brand.

Step 2, where based on the guidelines and strategic direction, client’s can brief agencies to create campaigns that integrate into the communities.

The problem is there always ends up being a struggle for the division of power and long-term control.

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