Using social media to maximum effect
Social media has overtaken many traditional forms of advertising, and is increasingly used as a marketing tool by brands anxious to raise profile. But leaping onto Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn without careful forethought may not be the most productive way forward.
According to the UK's Internet Advertising Bureau, advertisers spent a record £8.61 billion on digital advertising in the UK in 2015, up more than 16% and the biggest increase in spend since 2008. What's more, the amount spent on advertising on social media grew 45% to £1.25 billion, accounting for 41% of all banner and video display advertising.
But while no business can afford to ignore the opportunities which social media presents – bearing in mind that Facebook is now one of the biggest companies on the planet – diverting spend away from traditional formats just because that is what competitors appear to be doing may not necessarily be the best strategy.
Alison Chivers, a partner in the London corporate group, says: "We would say, before you decide that it's a good idea to launch your brand on to social media, reflect on this and actually consider your strategy, focus on why you want to do it, and what you want to achieve."
There is a distinction to be made between different types of industries, says Chivers, because while a consumer goods brand may benefit enormously from reaching out to customers via Twitter, the same may not be the case for a mid-market accountancy firm, for example.
She adds: "Take a step back. Although on the face of it social media has advantages, in that it's cheap and you can potentially access a huge market of customers, you should still give it as much consideration as you would give a traditional form of marketing."
When it comes to networking, social media can appear to offer huge opportunities to make new connections, but it has become increasingly difficult to evaluate whether, and to what extent, new relationships are actually being forged, and existing ones enhanced.
Engaging with social media is not without risk, and it may be just as quick to damage your brand as it is to reinforce it. One common problem which arises is when employees overlook the contextual difference between using social media in a personal or a corporate capacity. Often the lines are very clear, but tweeting about your Sunday lunch on a Twitter account linked to your employer, seen by all the company's customers, may not be particularly well- advised. The same applies if commenting on the news of the day on LinkedIn, or becoming involved in impassioned political debates on the firm's Facebook recruitment site.
As well as the potential brand damage, companies need to be aware that ill- advised posts could lead to legal liability. For example, an employee commenting on their personal Facebook page about the clients they are working with could not only be a breach of their employment contract but may also leave the company in breach of non-disclosure agreements or other confidential obligation which it is bound by.
Mitigating such employee-linked risks around social media requires ensuring that all staff, including any staff who are not employees, really understand the cross-over between work and personal use of social media, as the employee is a representative of the company they work for. Their use of social media in a personal capacity can trespass into their working relationship if the content in any way relates to work or work contacts, or if the image they are portraying of themselves to third parties affects the reputation of the business.
Tania Tandon, an employment partner, says: "Social media has meant that people enter jurisdictions and subject their employer to legal regimes in those jurisdictions without actually physically going there. An employee posted a view on sexuality can be welcomed in one jurisdiction and illegal in another."
Employers can significantly reduce their exposure to risk by training employees on behaviours in the workplace, and by ensuring business contacts and confidential information are retained by the company and deleted from social media for departing employees.
Further risks arise around copyright and other intellectual property protection both as regards to protecting the company IP and as regards of infringing third party IP. One of the first challenges when it comes to online marketing is to make sure that you own your intellectual property, according to Caroline Hayward, an IP partner in the London office of Trowers & Hamlins. She says: "If you commission a third party, such as a marketing agency to design your website, it means that, unless your contract says otherwise, they, not you, will own the copyright. Not only do you want to own that copyright so that you can go after other people if they start copying your web materials, you also want to own your domain name, so that you avoid being held to ransom if/when your relationship with the agency comes to an end.
It is not uncommon for a web designer to own a company's domain name, (website address) and to (in effect) lease it back to the company. But that means that, should your business decide to change web designer, you may potentially have to pay out a large sum to keep your address.
Even if you do own the intellectual property, there is still only limited recourse if you are unhappy about what is posted about you online. For example, disgruntled customers can be quick to pepper your social media sites with derogatory comments about your products, but, short of suing those customers for defamation, or taking action on few possible grounds, there is not much you can do. Hayward says: "Often clients get very upset because of criticism they are receiving on social media, and the truth is that, very often, they can't get rid of it." Sometimes customers or commentator posts can amount to a massive brand disaster, such as that experienced by United Airlines, which got into trouble in April for throwing a customer off an airline and was on the receiving end of a social media storm when video and customer criticism went viral.
Businesses that sell products have an additional problem from the sale of counterfeits and illegal imports. While websites like eBay do have complaints mechanisms allowing companies to complain if users are selling products which infringe copyright, patents or trade marks, again the most effective and efficient way to tackle such problems may be through the courts.
Of course, you can only stop infringements if you know that they are doing it, so a key message is to monitor closely what's happening. "First of all, you have to be vigilant about what people are doing with your IP online," says Hayward. "It's a question of making sure that, every month or whatever, someone takes a proper look around to see what's going on with your brand and products."
But another danger is that you make a huge investment in social media content, only for it never to be read. Chivers says: "Measuring return-on- investment can be tricky, and how you do it depends what industry you're in. If you're selling goods online and people are clicking through to your website and making purchases, then that's easy to track. But in many cases the purpose of using social media is more about raising general awareness of a brand and your overall profiling, and that's much harder to measure."
She advises clients to use a combination of measures, including analytics tools embedded in online content to see whether people are viewing articles which are being posted, checking whether people are engaging with comments made on Twitter (perhaps by retweeting), and prompting debate on discussions started on LinkedIn.
Overall, the message is that it is great to embrace social media, but proceed with caution.
Chivers says: "If you were running a newspaper advertising campaign in the past, or you were putting an article in a magazine, it's probable that anything going out would be signed off by at least three or four senior people before leaving the building. It shouldn't be any different if you're posting something online. Just because you can put something up instantaneously does not change the fact that it's representing your brand and has the potential to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people."