Social Media, Meet Branded Content

The meeting was in a banquet hall of Palo Alto hotel. It was billed as a meeting of the social media minds, as a few dozen social media experts and their corporate counterparts gathered together to loosely architect the future of social media. It was hard not to sense the irony. On one side, you had the pioneers of the social web – the once pure bloggers – the same bloggers that feverishly attacked any brand involvement in their formerly gated community. On the other side, representatives from big brands, each with newly minted business cards with social or community in their newly minted titles.

The day was filled with panels, break out sessions, and even the occasional clever presentation with funny consumer generated videos and Hugh McLeod drawings. Really smart people sharing words like ‘emotional connections’, ‘two-way conversation’, and ‘engaging and immersive experiences’ all in the context of how brands should leverage the social web. Traditional advertising – unfairly not represented at the meeting – was a four letter word and the butt of most jokes.

Yes, social media exploded on to the scene and the momentum remains strong. Technology is enabling people to connect in amazing ways. Blah, blah, blah. We read this everyday. We know this. We embrace and champion this. But what most of us marketing dogs seem to have forgotten or don’t want to say to the eager-to-spend clients, is that the vast majority of people, especially young people, don’t want Mr. PC Manufacturer as a friend.

Consumers are not looking to talk with most brands at length, or to be immersed in the world of their products. They don’t want a brand’s logo on their profile page. A brand won’t make them any cooler or more popular or even more enlightened. They don’t care about the amazing environment for 2-way conversation a brand has created. If the conversation is about the dual cleansing action of a facial cleanser, don’t expect a lot of talking. If the conversation is about the boost in confidence they will feel if they use XYZ detergent… boring. That sounds like the television ad they just skipped. And a funny commercial is not a platform for social media. A funny brand, maybe. But not a funny commercial – but brands and agencies continue to try.

Please don’t get me wrong. I believe there is still considerable hope in the social media world for the shampoo and deodorant brands out there. A recent report compared time spent on content sites to the time spent on social media sites. Although content was the clear winner (community sites amount to only 7.5% of consumers time spent online), I believe it was an unfair comparison. Some of the most powerful digital executions actually leverage both the social aspects of the web and compelling content to drive the best results. Content – unique, compelling, entertainment-based content – is the hook to drive incremental success in social media.

The Appeal of Celebrity

One of the best examples of this dynamic for a brand is Adidas, and their use of high-value, celebrity athlete-driven content across the brand’s MySpace presence. The brand has multiple targeted MySpace profiles, and owns 100% of the brand-able real estate of the profiles of their sponsored athletes. Adidas is certainly a brand capable of attracting some social media love on its own, but layer in the tight integration of their athlete endorsements and branded content and the brand casts a net across MySpace of over 200,000 friends – all just one branded content-filled bulletin click away. A typical brand profile may generate 50,000 friends on its own if it is very, very lucky. Add David Beckham into the mix in the form of branded content, and the excitement among consumers multiplies. Perhaps even more compelling, if and when the David Beckham relationship expires, the consumer connections Adidas has created via MySpace will remain intact as long as the brand continues to add value to those relationships.

In another example, Procter & Gamble’s Secret Deodorant brand launched a MySpace page in 2005 to support a program with the relatively unknown singer Rihanna. As her popularity increased, the Secret profile organically attracted over 30,000 friends with no media support – likely impossible without the content opportunities a relationship with Rihanna provided.

Of course, the dynamic works outside of social networking. Aside from humorous commercials, the most popular branded content on YouTube taps into the fan base of the celebrity endorsers of the brand. Nike’s most viewed content without famous athletes receives only a fraction of the attention that their most popular pro athlete-featured content receives. And you will be hard pressed to find a Hewlett-Packard commercial on YouTube that does not feature a celebrity.

Where is the Emotion?

Seemingly over night, the bloggers-turned-social media experts have morphed from the protectors of their digital domain to the sherpas, leveraging their thought leadership to guide corporations up the mountain. Just as they were perhaps too quick to shun branded efforts back in 2004, many are part of the movement that is now too quick to force fit brands into the social web on the wrongly perceived strength and appeal of the brand.

That meeting room in Palo Alto was filled people representing various technologies, voicing grand philosophies, speaking at length about emotional connections with consumers. The funny thing is, nobody was able to demonstrate anything about their offering that felt remotely emotional. Why not infuse social media programs with the one thing that is actually proven to connect emotionally – good solid, entertaining branded content? Better yet, throw an influencer into the mix. Most brands don’t have a huge base of fans clamoring to sit down for a conversation. But if your brand offers the chance to have a conversation with David Beckham, you are suddenly a friend worth having.

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