ADVERTISING agency 303 couldn’t keep up with coverage its Enjoy the Ride campaign attracted in social media in the days following its launch on behalf of the Office of Road Safety.

The counter-intuitive anti-speeding campaign that focused on the benefits of not speeding rather than its bloody consequences went viral and took on a life of its own online.

For the head of planning at 303 Derry Simpson the response was confirmation that, when a campaign hits the mark, the digital communities will drive the online exposure.

The interest in this campaign illustrates the pervasive nature of digital technology and how fundamentally it has changed branding both for businesses and their communications consultants.

From its origins as online advertising, social media has added a broad new dimension to the digital landscape and forced companies to rethink their relationship with their consumers and stakeholders.

What was a one-way dissemination of carefully crafted and controlled messages is now a two-way conversation, and brands in many respects are in the hands of consumers, with their feedback on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter shifting and shaping the business.

This new paradigm can’t be underestimated or ignored, with Nielsen research suggesting the 25 per cent of Australians that are active online are creating content for social media platforms.

Australians have historically been quick to take up new technology so why haven’t more brands embraced the potential of the digital space and the two-way conversation that is social media?

There are two opposing and equally powerful forces at work in the digital environment – fear of change and fear of missing out. But one of the key hurdles for consumer businesses is the path to sales. 

Social media sites aren’t a sales forum; that might be a function of your website but sites like Facebook and Twitter are all about building communities around a brand.

Marketforce director of digital services Nigel Fisher said energy drink V and its Republic of V micro site was an example of how consumer brands could build communities in the digital space.

“Republic of V was set up to go after young people, 15 to 25 year olds, and they set up a republic to talk to them directly and get their feedback,” Mr Fisher told WA Business News.

“Hanging off that micro site they had their stand-alone V Republic facebook page, where people could upload whatever they wanted, skating videos, nothing at all to do with the V drink.

“And that is one of the critical things; it doesn’t have to be about your product because you don’t want to be trying to sell – it’s about getting that community and building that community.”

Mr Fisher said V used its Facebook site and the Republic of V micro site to better understand its target market and then hit them with advertising material that ‘spoke their language’.

“If you don’t have something to build a community around they are not just going to roll up because you send a message out saying ‘like us on Facebook’,” Mr Fisher said. “You have to be providing some content that makes it compelling for people to go to that site.

“It’s not about selling your product at that point, it’s about doing it through community participation and brand awareness and then you can tailor your messages through your other media to get direct sales.”

For many businesses the digital landscape is still very daunting and fear of the damage social media platforms could do to their brand keeps them from making any serious investment.

It’s a well-founded fear when you look at the damage things like ill-conceived comments on Twitter have done to individuals and the companies they represent.

Businesses need to understand that they need a different voice or style for the various social media platforms while adhering to a consistent tone.

It sounds complicated and that is exactly why it is so crucial to have a solid digital strategy, according to Marketforce’s director of strategy Nicole Walton.

The other key difference between digital and traditional media is the results metrics.

Digital can leave agencies and their creative strategies bare because it is so easy to instantly check what sort of numbers or exposure a project is garnering.

This presents both opportunities and challenges for brands. On the upside it means brands can road test ideas in social media to see what is working best before proceeding to a traditional campaign, but there’s nowhere to hide with an ill-conceived digital idea.

Marketforce’s Crusty Challenge for its client Mrs Mac’s pies was a $10,000 ‘last man standing’ competition that was streamed live on the Mrs Mac’s Facebook page over 56 hours.

Competitors were challenged to complete a series of crusty feats, with the last man standing winning the prize.

More than 1.8 million people were exposed to the competition, there were live conversation threads between competitors on the Facebook page, and the average length of visit was 39 minutes.

“Gone are the days where you get hit with a 30-second ad, this was almost best practice for how you engage in two-way conversation and build a relationship with a brand,” Ms Walton said.

“There is far more engagement with the brand in an authentic manner in a manner that fits the brand’s personality and that is why it’s so essential to have a strategy.”

But along with the opportunities come the challenges of the digital channel and second only to strategy is the importance of investing and properly resourcing platforms like social media.

This is not a set-and-forget channel and, according to Gatecrasher Advertising managing director Tony Scampoli, the challenge was sometimes “overwhelming” for small- to medium-sized businesses.

“They are quite often working with marketing departments of one or two people so they simply don’t have the time or resources to really manage it, and it can be quite intensive,” Mr Scampoli said.

“So they face this terrible dilemma where they know they need to be represented in those spaces but they struggle to come to terms with how to manage that.

“But in general I think brands and businesses in WA are coming to grips with this and realising it needs to happen and they are looking at ways to facilitate a greater presence in the social and digital space.”

Professional Public Relations social media strategist John Cooke has made a career of grabbing headlines, but he warns you can get press for all the wrong reasons if you don’t get your digital strategy right.

Despite the conversational nature of social media, Mr Cooke said it was highly strategic with the goal for brands to build communities rather than use these platforms to bolster sales. And it takes resources and investment.

“There are a lot of people out there who can set up a Facebook or Linkedin page for you but you have to manage the content and learn the basic rules of how to engage to get any traction,” Mr Cooke said.

It’s a complicated area and Mr Cooke said PPR was increasingly approached to develop social media policies for companies.

“We have a number of businesses that would like to use some of these platforms as a way of engaging with their own staff, but it is also one of their biggest fears,” he said.

“When you ask companies about social media they say ‘our staff aren’t allowed to use it’ but the more they think about it and understand that your biggest ambassador to your business should be your employee.”

303’s Ms Simpson said companies were harnessing the marketing potential of their staff by including staff testimonials on company websites as well as in their traditional advertising campaigns.

“More and more you see staff appearing in ads and that’s as much about rewarding the staff and encouraging the staff as it is about doing a consumer campaign,” she said.

“We are using testimonials more in advertising ...  and there is a huge rise from a digital point of view, if you go to any website there are always customer testimonials.’’It’s just one example of how digital communication is reshaping the agenda for branding as companies respond to conversations with consumers and stakeholders online to draw up their strategy.

The Brand Agency managing director Steve Harris sees lobbying as one of the biggest and most exciting growth areas. 

The Brand Agency was heavily involved in the anti-mining tax campaign and it’s an area perfectly suited to the digital channels and their capacity to build communities.

“In the business community I think there is a great understanding that talking and getting franchise from the community is really important,” Mr Harris said.

“What companies around Australia have learnt, and you are seeing it at the moment with the carbon tax, plain packaging for cigarettes, gambling legislation, companies and industry lobby groups are seeing an opportunity, if you run a well-orchestrated powerful campaign to change the mood of the electorate.”