Head-to-head with the big four in social media

Social media is no longer just about connecting friends and family, but about linking businesses with audiences ready and willing to embrace brands and campaigns. In a roundtable discussion, executives from four top social networks tell Rachel England how business can benefit from using social channels

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Bruce Daisley is UK sales director at Twitter, and formerly ran sales for Google’s UK display business across YouTube and the Google display network.

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Felicity McCarthy is marketing manager at Facebook for small and medium-sized businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and a former eBay executive.

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Cristian Cussen is Google+ head of marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and was formerly a director at Ning and Myspace.

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Richard George is corporate communications manager at LinkedIn for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and a former LinkedIn European PR manager.

How can businesses best use social platforms?

Bruce Daisley: We found that businesses came on our platform initially to experiment or listen to their customers. Quickly they found they could get great value by taking part in the conversation. People use us to connect to their interests and passions. As soon as you realise the platform is an information and interest network, you can see how businesses play a really important part in that conversation.

Felicity McCarthy: We enable users to connect to the people that are important to them, but the reality is they’re connecting to more than this. They’re connected to businesses they want to support, or where they shop, or to businesses that can give them exclusives and sales tips. We’re seeing that people absolutely do want to be part of that conversation – they want to keep up to date with what’s happening and businesses need to be there to fill that need.

Cristian Cussen: Using our platform businesses can increase their social reach across the web, gain visibility for their social message, engage their fans via ground-breaking technology and connect more deeply with their audience. One of the big benefits for brands is the impact on Google Search as a result of having a +page. Brands’ Google+ posts can appear on the right hand side of search results, helping get their key messages across, and increasing visibility and coverage for their brand, at no extra cost.

It’s about fostering a two-way conversation where customers feel valued and appreciated

Richard George: Ours is the only global social network solely focused on business, so the value we offer our members is in line with who they are as a professional. From a member’s perspective, it’s a place online where they can establish a professional identity, connect with other professionals, and gain access to insights and opportunities that help them be better at the job they do. From a company’s perspective, very broadly, we help them do three things – hire, market and sell to an audience which is otherwise very hard to reach.

How should businesses be interacting with social platforms for maximum benefit?

George: A lot of it is about identifying your market. On LinkedIn we’re able to define an audience based on anything from company name, job title, job function, seniority or geography – all those things help a brand narrowly define the audience they want to reach. However, the platform helps businesses on many levels, particularly by making their employees more successful, providing industry insights in terms of best practice, competitive threats and emerging opportunities. These all feed back into the business, putting them in an advantageous position.

Cussen: Yes, it’s important to acknowledge that consumers don’t view social as separate from the rest of their lives, but as part of everything they do online. As such, brands should take the same approach and integrate social into their broader marketing mix.

McCarthy: It’s about fostering a two-way conversation where customers feel valued and appreciated. There isn’t a “one size fits all” strategy to creating social media content, but variety is key. Posts should be perceived to be valuable to a customer and not necessarily in a monetary sense. It could be some interesting news related to your industry, a special offer or even something to generate discussion, such as a “flavour of the day” if you’re a café or food business, for example.

Daisley: Posting photographs is a good place to start, but the people who experiment with their content and take the time to discover what their followers are interested in tend to see the most rapid return. Build up a core base of followers, start asking questions and start posting pictures – you can see immediately what your customers respond to and what they don’t. We frequently see businesses tweeting offers and discounts, and that’s a great way to measure how effectively people are paying attention, too. Also, lots of brands use Twitter as a very rapid customer service and response mechanism, which proves very valuable for satisfaction and reputation levels.

A small business owner tells us he can see customers coming in through the door directly as a result of what he’s doing online

Cussen: Being a good listener is a key part of being a good conversationalist. This isn’t just a tip for cocktail-party etiquette – it’s crucial to successful social media marketing. By listening, brands can discover what it takes to be engaging and meaningful engagement is at the heart of any thriving social community.

How much time should businesses spend on social media?

McCarthy: Again, there’s no hard-and-fast rule in terms of time to be spent. Setting up a Facebook page won’t take much time, but in terms of posting to your page, some businesses will post every day, some will post once or twice a week. Both are fine. But my advice is, whatever you choose, be consistent. We would not recommend going crazy and posting five times a day and then not posting for a month. Try to get to a pace you can sustain over time.

Cussen: Regular posts, with a mixture of images, embedded video and strong calls to action will reward people for choosing to follow your brand. Also, through social annotations in search, brands are seeing high CTR [click-through rate] increases on their search campaigns. H&M experienced a 22 per cent CTR increase, while Cadbury had a 17 per cent increase. Other brands, such as Appliances Online, are actually seeing return-on-investment benefits with 8 per cent CPA [cost per action] decrease.

George: We’ve found that all sizes of business can build a solid platform for themselves in less than 15 minutes per day.

Daisley: Smaller businesses can get away with just one or two people running an account. The fascinating thing is, when you see a small business using Twitter, they can see the immediate return. There’s a small business near here and the owner tells us he can see customers coming in through the door directly as a result of what he’s doing online. They can see that the return for their efforts is so immediate. The flipside is some of the biggest businesses in the UK work with us and it takes some of them a bit longer to see the impact. But sustained efforts deliver big results. Some research last year found that, compared to other social platforms, Twitter converted nine times better for B2B [business-to-business] advertisers, so the evidence does suggest they can turn those leads into money.

What are some of the challenges facing widespread adoption of social media by businesses?

McCarthy: Many of the challenges for businesses involve finding the time to do everything, especially if you’re a smallish business owner and you’re trying to maintain a social presence and do fifty million other things as well. But Facebook is mindful of that and we’ve tried to make it easier for business users.

Cussen: Your social media channel represents the voice of your company or brand; it’s an important tool to get right. People will come to hear what your brand is saying for the most accurate, up-to-date information – during good times and especially when something goes wrong.  Make sure your content, and any you link to you is accurate, current and fits your brand identity.

Daisley: I believe the biggest discriminator of success right now is how engaged businesses are. We’re finding that it’s a mixed speed approach. Some brands are really embracing this and getting involved quickly and, if you’re not doing that, then there is the danger your competition will leave you behind.

George: Focus and understanding remain a challenge. Businesses aren’t necessarily sure what can be achieved with the medium or what their social objectives are, so they shy away. In our sector we see a lot of FTSE-100 companies using LinkedIn, but there are many other businesses yet to recognise the potential of social media. This is why we work very closely with our business customers to guide them through the process.

Daisley: Some businesses are very much “full steam ahead” while others are definitely slow to the party. But it’s not too late, there’s still a big opportunity to be part of this first wave of social media.

What social business trends do you envisage for the future?

Daisley: We’re seeing more and more chief executives getting on to Twitter. Whether they’re prominent chief execs, such as Rupert Murdoch or Richard Branson, or for smaller companies, they’re finding it’s an incredibly powerful tool to keep connected to the business community. As soon as a chief exec gets involved, they realise the value of it and that has a ripple effect throughout the business.

McCarthy: I think one big trend that we’re seeing is the shift to mobile. Certainly mobile is a major shift in technology generally and how businesses can connect to their customers. Their message needs to be in front of their customer all the time. Mobile is really significant and we’re very keen to enable that opportunity for business.

Cussen: The exciting thing about social is that there is a real spirit of creativity and ingenuity. At Google, we believe that social media, like mobile, represents a sociological shift in how customers relate to businesses and to one another. Businesses that understand and embrace this will learn, adapt and win. Brands are only limited by their imagination.