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Managing Relationships through Social Media

Recently, there was an explosion of interest in social media and authors from every field released a book with the attempt of interpreting the changes brought by digital technology.

On one hand, these books have invoked enthusiasm of countless professionals and researchers because they stipulated the major potential of the digital technology. On the other hand, this oversimplification process aimed at reducing the complexity of this phenomenon, has generated the belief that social media is a magic formula that solves people’s and companies’ problems in generating new business.

I believe that everybody behaves like a social media expert because ‘Social’ means ‘Relationship’ at the end of the day. The concept of ‘relationship’ is not exactly new and anybody has to initiate or maintain multiple and simultaneous relationships in any phase of life as we don’t live on a deserted island. However, NOT everybody is able to create ‘high quality’ relationships where reciprocal respect and mutual trust, commitment, satisfaction are involved.

I believe that ‘Social Media’ is NOT the magic formula, ‘Relationship’ is. 

This implies to go beyond the golden rule "Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others." – Isocrates (436–338 BC), which somebody interpreted as ‘treat your customers as you would like to be treated’.

Instead, we need to 'treat our customers as they wish to be treated' and not as we, managers, would like to be treated by others.

This is only possible if we bypass the complexity using the technology at our disposal and we adopt a truly honest, social, and caring approach when communicating and serving our customers. After all, this is the main opportunity coming from Big data, CRM, monitoring tools, etc.

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However, we should never forget that the understanding of human beings is an art – and to a large extent complex.

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

Current Relationships & Data gaps in Brand Management

Different from ‘Lifestyle Marketing' research, the Brand Network approach does NOT rely on demographics when segmenting the market (Brand-based Segmentation). In fact, it only focuses on brands the consumer has an emotional connection with and can afford to buy. This is based on the assumption that people consume specific brands because of brands’ capability to connect individuals, although these connections might not be immediately, or at all, visible.

The segmentation starts from the individual’s brand consumption pattern (i.e. micro level) and the connections between similar people becomes visible along this process. The use of the technology allows for collection of real-time data in a dynamic way, while also taking the individual’s changes in consumption preferences into account.

We identified a series of questions that describe some of the relational gaps that need to be fulfilled from both consumer and company to create long-lasting relationships.

CONSUMERS

-  How do I connect with brands I am in love with? Are my brand-related stories relevant for the company I love? → Preferential Treatment

-  How do I meet new people who have similar tastes and interests as me and with whom I can share my stories/expertise? → Social Relationships

-  How do I publicly convey my brand preference on a wide range of product categories showing my personality and getting rewarded for my efforts? → Social Recognition

COMPANIES

-  How do I collect real, systematic and inexpensive data about brand preference of my consumers? → Data gathering

- How do I engage with my consumers for ‘low involvement’ products (e.g. toothpaste)? → Initiate relationships

-  How do I discover Brand Ambassadors and study their passion for my brand? → Connect with influencers

-  How do I uncover which other brands my consumers buy and why they decide to change? → Co-branding activities

-  How do I effectively segment the market beyond demographics? → Market segmentation based on behavioral patterns

To prove the validity of the Brand Network approach, the research team lead by Alice Stegmüller engaged with a professional and talented photographer, Matteo Fieni, to undertake an ethnographic research. The study was conducted in Lugano and consisted in taking static picture of random people passing in front of a fixed stage.

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Source: Ritratti Metropolitani

A portrait of about 100 people was made. After each shot they were asked to fill out a form where they had to indicate their brand consumption pattern for several categories (e.g. which brand of phone/PC/Car/Sneakers…do you use in your daily life?). Additional inquiries were made to understand their brand attachment as well as their feeling/participation toward their respective brand communities. The results encouraged me to explore the relationships between brands even more profoundly and eventually to transform this research project into what we call today BrandMate

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

What is ‘Brand Network Theory’?

Brand Communities are not built on brand reputation (as one may wrongly assume), rather it is built on peoples’ understanding of brand stories. Being communities neither fixed nor permanent, its meaning and concreteness are always being negotiated by individuals. This is true whether group members interact electronically, face-to-face, or both. Motivations behind community participation and degree of involvement in the community may vary significantly.

We have identified at least three levels of community experience: Community of Consumption (frequent buyer = loyal), Brand Tribe (self-connected with a brand = Brand Advocate), Communities of Brands, people linked to a set of brands in different product categories.

We are in the middle of a transition process: from ‘Brand Communities’ to ‘Communities of Brands’.

After an extensive analysis, my research team concluded that despite the wide source of consumer insights both brand communities and social networks might provide, neither can be used to generate understanding and draw parallels between similar individuals. This is because demographic variables or the mere interest for a specific brand cannot be used as a proxy for people’s similarity.

For instance, in social networks like Facebook (FB), friends may be connected as they happened to live in the same town or go to the same school, but it does not necessarily mean they share similar passions in life. Members of brand communities such as Nutella have often one element in common ‘the brand Nutella’ but again, it does not imply that people are similar in any other way. 

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The idea of brand network, which is fundamental to the BrandMate application, is based on the assumption that both brands and people have their own specific personalities. Some of the brands people consume are the external representation of their inner personality. Consumers choose given brands over others for their ability to convey who they are. Although we tend to equate everything they love as a brand they love and wish to purchse (from singers to cities), there are infinite numbers of brands we consume merely for convenience (i.e. without emotional connections) and then there are ones they love but cannot afford to buy. Therefore, a distinction between those brands we use in our daily lives and those we are only passionate about is necessary (see Mari & Mandelli, 2011; Stegmuller, 2012).

The research team believes that motivation and affordability are two key factors in the brand selection process. In that respect, the study has shown that an individual pushing the FB ‘Like’ button have absolutely no value for companies, as affordability and motivation are not considered by users when clicking it – i.e. I use the brand X regularly and I have an emotional connection with it. The selection ‘Like’ might even come from referral or advertising, so not in complete independence.

We especially believe that groups of people regularly use similar clusters of brands (of different nature) to express themselves. Current technology allows the mapping of individual brand network and the definition of consumer clusters with similar brand consumption pattern. From this perspective it is possible to look at brands not just as single and independent entities but as brands linked to each other in networks.

This sophisticated but intuitive approach aims at successfully applying a consumer-based market segmentation using a combination of brands individuals consume.

We came to call this ‘brand-based segmentation’ and it requires re-focusing the attention on customer perspective and emotions.

Individual Brand Network -> Brand Consumption Pattern -> Brand-based Segmentation

Brand network theory says that by studying the brand preferences of a large group of individuals we can analyze clusters of similar individuals and create a segmentation based on those brands that define the characteristic of the individuals.

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

Is Social Media revolutionary?

The large explosion of brand communities is practically attributed to the diffusion of the Internet. The advent of the Internet and more recently social media - where Internet users collaborate, share information, and opinions - are the critical phenomenons of the past decade in communication.

Depending on the definition of the term “social media”, we can identify millions (if not billions) of users who participate in online communities as an ordinary ingredient of their social experience (see Robert Kozinets). In investigating this phenomenon, the literature has widely adopted the label of social media (social web or Web 2.0) to identify an online environment where people with common interests can gather together to share thoughts, ideas, and opinions on products or brands.

In this context, social media markets are conceived as made by interactions and stories between people who use digital social platforms as a new form of communication media and a social environment. Compared to the past, these users are not passively consuming published content, but rather actively communicating with one another, thus becoming media players (see Andreina Mandelli).

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The online environment can under many circumstances be used as a medium of meaningful social exchange, where collectives of customers form new global niches, segments, and where electronic tribes convene. These communities, which recently show impressive growth, are no longer bounded by local, spatial, or temporal environments, and thus represent immense opportunities for market-oriented consumer interactions. 

Social media is an invaluable research site offering extraordinary opportunities for marketers to study tastes, desires, and other needs of consumers as part of a specific community. Social media vehicles are putting consumers closer to companies so that consumers can be conceived as part of the organization.

This evolution has led to the idea that brand managers can utilize social platforms to build and manage relationships with consumer communities.

In my personal view, the abundance of information related to social media (thousands of books, presentations, videos and audio files), have prompted Stendhal syndrome where corporate managers are frozen in front of this huge amount of ‘beauty’ that they do not completely understand. Today, anyone can be a social media expert but the quality of advice and suggestions is rather low. This hype for social media made managers believe that FB fan pages, Twitter, or YouTube accounts were the answers to all their business challenges - Erroneously, of course.

Social Media appears to have profound communication implications, however managers must recognize that social media is nothing more than a communication enabler.

In the end, social media is simply a technology that enables (Mandelli and Mari, 2010):

1. Consumers to become media agents (UGC) and communicate in a many-to-many way;

2. Companies to connect with its own communities for building and maintaining relationships.

Whenever brand managers forget that, the expectations on the social media tools are unreal. It urges to focus on the relationships, not on the technology.

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

Evolution of the Brand Community

Community is a core construct in social thought. People are held together through shared emotions, styles of life, and consumption practices. Community concept is as alternative form of social arrangements, also called ‘neo-tribes’ or ‘post-modern tribes’ and is not new in brand management studies.

Consumers desire an experience-based marketing that emphasizes interactivity, connectivity, and creativity. This explains why people are often more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than they are in the brands themselves. Often individuals join brand communities to build new personal relationships both online and offline.

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Source: Matteo Fieni from Ritratti Metropolitani (http://ritrattimetropolitani.ch/14/)

The interest of branding discipline behind communities or ‘tribes' is twofold: 1. Individuals buy branded products for their ability to communicate their own personality; 2. People are more willing to recommend a brand they believe in and make them feel part of a community.

Despite the huge availability of brand-related information on the Internet, a major factor influencing brand preference is still consumer advocacy.

To understand the role brand tribes play in the brand management field, ‘consumers’ need to be envisioned and modeled not only as individuals, but as a complex and interrelated global network.

This global network is comprised of series of active consumers who draw on each other’s knowledge and experience to associate new meanings to their brands.

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

The Business Insight behind BrandMate

In 2007 I was a postgraduate marketing student at University of Lugano (USI), Switzerland. It was during a Consumer Behavior class my first thought about BrandMate’s core concept was conceived. First module of this course, taught by prof. Andreina Mandelli, pertained to market segmentation techniques, when applied to the understanding of consumer-brand relationships. Fascinated by the topic, I started to wonder - How can present day company successfully perform targeting and product positioning when they mainly base this strategic process on individual level (demographic and psychographic) variables?

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This simplified vision of the consumer behavior comes with several limitations. Assuming that people in the same age group, occupation, sex, race and location of residence would have something in common and thus belong to a homogenous ‘segment’, made me deeply unsatisfied. This process did not consider the uniqueness of each individual at all.

Of course the most advanced and sophisticated methods, like psychographic segmentation and lifestyle marketing, rely on more complex variables (personality, values, lifestyle) when clustering consumers. But, still, these variables refer to individual-level psychological and behavioral processes, that seem limited, when looking at how consumers really relate to brands. People relate to brands as parts of their life, and their life is social. Questions such as ‘How can I better understand consumer behavior towards brands?’ or ‘How can I better capture the social dimension of this behavior?’ started popping up to my mind, together with the realization that better techniques to truly understand consumers were needed.

Answers to those questions were not that simple. However, few months later I started working as research assistant for the university under the supervision of prof. Mandelli. This was an extraordinary opportunity for me to collaborate with great students (Alice Stegmüller was the project lead) and to further explore my thoughts.

The research team has extensively studied the brand community concept as well as all technologies that enable and support its creation and maintenance, in search for a better way to classify consumers.

This is when we realized that brand communities are in the middle of a transaction process and developed a theory that we came to call ‘Brand Network Community’ to explain that phenomena.

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate

Open Letter to BrandMates (BMs)

To Partners & Collaborators

LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN!

Dear BMs,

As of today you are part of something called ‘BrandMate’. At this stage, it is nothing more than a bunch of documents and a few spread ideas. Its destiny is in your hands and you will decide, through your choices, if we are going to fail or succeed, build or destroy, grow or shrink. Any day will be the right one to make an impact, leave a legacy and create something meaningful. Any day will be the right one to simplify something complex, solve an expected issue, and overcome a challenge. 

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Overall, this might just be one of the many professional challenges you will face in your life or it could be the biggest one. You will have to make that call. But in doing so, please always remember that: 

'The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark' - Michelangelo. 

If this post reaches you, it is because we found something special in you, exactly as you did in BrandMate. My biggest bet is that your talent will one day turn you into a great Business Artist, capable of creating wonderful relationships with your audience. I hope this will happen when you are still part of this little something called ‘BrandMate’ (or just a ‘BM’ friend).

With such a talented team, we seem to be that much closer to reaching our goals - in fact, we have almost met them already, which make us want to put them even higher. 

During this journey, I want you to unleash your magical genius at its fullness. Shouldn’t this happen you can always count on me. Welcome on board!

Alex Mari

Founder & Creative Director of BrandMate