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Real time branding

Until recently, branding was almost exclusively controlled by the advertising industry whose purpose has, traditionally, been to formulate branding concepts for their audiences to absorb. Wowing audiences with creative messages, inspiring innuendos and surreal images, worked.
Audiences were happy to fall for the dream and not shout about the reality; but with the arrival of social media and the real time web we are seeing, these same audiences not only answer back but take control and engage in the brand experience itself on a minute-by-minute basis.

This directly affects the way you should manage, monitor and measure your online branding campaigns - in real time.

Real time reputation

The rapid adoption and evolution of Twitter over the last year, where online conversations are taking place in a constantly moving flow of 140 character "tweets" (and where it is quite possible that your brand has already been mentioned), has highlighted the need for brand managers to take their audiences seriously - both day and night. If you are not there to defend your reputation an outraged audience can destroy it over a weekend. This has already happened.

Take the case of Motrin last November when it produced an online ad playfully describing babies as fashion accessories. Over just one weekend a huge ruckus arose on Twitter, Friendfeed and other social networks, resulting in Motrin removing the ads the following week. It was, however, too late.

Recently Nielsen mapped out the brand associations linked to Motrin both before and after the event and established that since then the brand Motrin has had a much higher association with terms such as "backlash", "offensive", "condescending" and "offensive Motrin ad."

A Nielsen release about the report's findings said, "In the age of Twitter, feedback barriers have all but disappeared, creating a near friction-free environment for playing back brand experience, campaign reaction of brand events," and "Marketers must be quick and savvy to react to these unprecedented channels of instant feedback."

Brands can no longer avoid interaction with their audience. It is for this reason that online reputation management (ORM) systems, which provide immediate tracking updates and key insights of what is being said around your brand, have been developed. This ensures that you can catch and react to any mentions.

Brand ambassadors: no more them and us

Establishing who a brand's key online ambassadors are - that is to say those who are already advocating your brand - and being able to identify their influence amongst other potential brand advocates is now one of the key foundations to building a successful online brand campaign.

Brands are starting to see the benefits of interaction and are creating concepts which allow their audiences to become part of the complete brand experience, leaving the agencies to become facilitators of the conversation.

Take Tohato's snack food wargame in Japan entitled 'The World's Worst War'. Tahato launched two new spicy snacks, the "Tyrant Habanero Burning Hell Hot", and the "Satan Jorquia Bazooka Deadly Hot". It designed a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) which ran on mobile phones. Each side was encouraged to recruit an "Evil Army" based on the brand of snack and those who liked that flavour.

Players had to buy a bag of the snacks to sign up, and then scan the 2D barcode (QR code) with the camera phone. Eighty three percent of young Japanese mobile phone users already use the 2D barcode feature - so it was an ordinary thing to do among the youth. They generated enormous traffic - 100 000 page views per day - with true engagement. Here was a totally non-digital brand, creating an online environment in which the audience became part of the total brand experience.

How to measure the effectiveness of this method of engagement, compared with that of a pay per click (PPC) campaign, has not yet been resolved. SEO, web analytics and social media are increasingly interconnected but building a framework to combine the three is proving to be not so easy.

Whereas the digital world has created a set of hardcore figures as proof of success, social media falls more in line with the PR format of 'exposure' and 'influence'. The amount of visitors on a website is not enough - it is now about the level of engagement. It is becoming apparent that targeting influencers within niche areas using the increasingly complex behavioural targeting methods available is potentially more valuable than aiming for the masses.

Google is also aware of the relevance of audience participation in online branding and recently launched Rich Snippets which provides enhanced snippets of information, such as reviews, in its search results. Google has confirmed that the search results with reviews significantly enhance click-through rates.

Are your employees your brand?

Increasingly, we are seeing the blurring of lines between work and leisure on social networks and Twitter. It is becoming very clear that a branded Twitterstream is often not as effective as an employee twittering as themselves and promoting the brand simultaneously.

But what happens when your brand manager - or any employee for that matter - using their own name on Twitter, builds a large personal following around your product and then moves to your key competitor taking their followers with them?

Do you as an employer have the right to ask your employees to 'tweet' company information in their own personal twitterstream, even if it is in company hours? Do you have the right to stop your employees tweeting about your company outside of office hours?

These are situations which are only now beginning to arise and as yet there are no stock answers but, as in the case of one UK company recently who fired an employee for stating in her Facebook account that her job was 'boring', this is probably not the best way forward to enhance your brand image.

Your brand is now open to the world and is defined by those who use it, interact with it and by how they view it on a second by second basis. Brands can no longer hide behind the advertising boards of the 20th century.

About the author

Janet Parkinson is the UK operations officer for Quirk eMarketing, which is the largest full service online marketing agency in Africa with 10 years of experience in providing holistic eMarketing solutions, including ORM system BrandsEye. With a keen interest in all things online and a deep emersion in the topic, Janet not only helps clients by providing strategic online marketing but she also has the years of practical experience to back it up. Email Janet on .