Social media in marketing

You are likely to have at least some idea of what social media and social networking websites are and what they do. Social media have been defined as follows:

a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User-Generated Content.

Social media enable active participation in the form of communicating, creating, joining, collaborating, working, sharing, socializing, playing, buying and selling, and learning with interactive and interdependent networks.

When trying to understand how social media can transform marketing practices, it is useful to start by looking at how consumers use social media.

How consumers use social media

You have already learned that marketing can be a two-way process, where consumers play an active part in using products, interpreting and passing on marketing communications, and influencing marketers’ actions through their preferences gathered by marketers through marketing information systems. Digital technology has given consumers an even more active role in certain aspects of marketing.

Social media may be used by both organisations and consumers for listening, gathering information and communicating, and play an increasingly influential role in consumer decision-making and behaviour. Discussion forums on social media have increased the range of opinions available to consumers about products; rather than just taking account of family and friends’ experiences, consumers are now able to take into account product reviews from large numbers of other consumers online. Such sources of information are particularly powerful when an offering is high involvement, expensive or difficult to assess before purchase, for example, in the case of a service or experience. Consumers vary in their level of engagement with digital technology, according to their personality, demographic characteristics, geographic location and economic status. Even if you do not use social media, you may still have consulted online reviews of books or hotels before purchasing or booking them to reduce the perceived risk involved in buying in situations where it is difficult to evaluate an offering before purchase.

Much of the content on social media is, of course, generated by their users. From the point of view of marketing, social media provide consumers with the opportunity to be creative participants in the marketing process, to varying degrees.

Marketers need to understand social media technology, the consumers who use it and the nature of the communication, its social relevance and its intended audience in order to engage successfully with consumers online (Dahl, 2015).

At the lowest level of creativity, consumers use social media for informal discussions about products and services. For example, a gardener might ask a question about the best slug repellent on a gardening online forum, such as that provided by the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.

At the next level up, consumers may create structured product / service reviews and evaluations, using text, audio, video or a combination of these. Rating a restaurant experience on a consumer review or booking site is a fairly simple example of this. A rather more complex example would be composing a video review of a movie, perhaps including clips from the movie and interviews with other viewers as well as one’s own opinions, and posting such a review on a video-sharing site such as YouTube.

At the third level, Berthon et al. (2012) propose self-created advertising videos (or texts, audios, etc.). For example, an author might make a video advertising her latest self-published book.

Finally, Consumers may modify proprietary products/services (i.e. products developed and trademarked by someone else) and distribute them with the help of social media. Although such innovations or activities may not take place online, awareness of them is often spread (distributed) via the internet. An example Berthon et al. give is the adaptation by students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of plastic drinks bottles for channelling limited daylight into cramped city dwellings in developing countries. Such modifications to an organisation’s products or communications are not always welcome to the organisation marketing the original product. A well known example is the appropriation of McDonald’s ‘super size’ promotional offer to up size menu offerings by the independent film maker Morgan Spur lock in his documentary film ‘Super Size Me’. In this documentary, Spur lock ate only food from McDonald’s menu for 30 days and documented the impact on his health.

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