The art of using social media channels in business

Publication date: 31 January 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Social media enables any business to share its story and reach key stakeholders. Michelle Carvill explains the prevailing trends and how to get the best out of the different channels, avoiding negative impacts. 

Social Media influenceI started experimenting with social media channels for business purposes around 10 years ago, in late 2008. As a strategic marketer with a keen interest in the customer experience, I was initially excited about the opportunity the social channels offered brands, organisations and their audiences to collaborate, converse, listen and learn – in real time. 

Of course, this real-time connectivity has meant that brands and organisations have had to rethink their digital and communication strategies, gearing up to become accountable to deliver on the ‘brand or organisational promises’. Organisations were often ill-prepared to have first-hand, direct two-way conversations with their customers. 

However, over the years, connecting and communicating via social media has become ‘business as usual’ for many organisations. Whole rafts of ‘Twitter support’ and ‘Facebook AI (artificial intelligence) Chatbots’ are in place managing high volumes of customer-service enquiries. Marketing teams have moved beyond traditional marketing/communications and lead with a digital-first (or mobile-first) approach, which of course, includes a significant proportion of social media activity. Research teams and business development teams understand where social can be used as a barometer, providing useful insight and steer. HR, IT and business architecture teams understand how social technologies can be used internally, harnessing the transfer of knowledge for competitive advantage. 

Organisations have woken up and continue to wake up to the importance of these technologies – and whereas once upon a time, activity on these channels was frowned upon, it is now encouraged and employees are trained in this as part of development programmes. And now, slowly but surely, many leaders and CEOs are starting to grasp the importance of being part of the brand story, understanding the power of social technologies strategically – and getting directly involved. 

‘Many leaders and CEOs are starting to grasp the importance of being part of the brand story’

All brands, businesses, and people have become ‘publishers’ – social media technologies, including the mighty YouTube, have enabled the ‘everyman’ without any budget, to create their own websites, online platforms and TV stations. Live-streaming and video is commonplace and it’s likely to become the number one way of communicating, dropping text.   

The view that social media is a bubble that is ready to burst has been completely dispelled. I don’t believe anyone now thinks it’s ‘going to go away sometime soon’ – as these, no longer ‘new’, technologies, have firmly embedded themselves within the fabric of our society.

Fluctuating channels

Do you sometimes wonder why social media platforms only popular for a certain amount of time, before another becomes more popular? For example, a lot of people used to use Facebook but now, it seems, more are using Snapchat.

Don’t believe the hype. If you look at user statistics, while things do indeed shift around, largely due to a demographic jumping from one platform to another thanks to more interesting features or following the crowd, it’s often not as drastic as it seems, and the channels are still heavily utilised. 

For example, Facebook has more active followers than any other platform with more than 2 billion users and even with the recent privacy concerns, the profiles and usage continues to grow. Facebook Group Plc dominates the social technologies with Facebook, Instagram has 600-plus million users and WhatsApp has 1.3 billion users – we’re talking big numbers. 

Snapchat has 300+million users. The younger demographic – generation Z, those born after 2000 – are indeed higher users of Instagram and Snapchat, but they also still have Facebook accounts and will use them for family connection and photo album sharing. So the channels offer different opportunities for different demographics. 

Shifts are often down to new innovations; the platforms continuously evolve, update, tweak and improve. For example, Snapchat pioneered the augmented reality (AR) filters, and story features – and the scarcity viewing model. These aspects have now been appropriated by other channels and so usage shifts.

The shifts drive innovation and innovation drives shifts. For example, Instagram has just launched Instagram TV; it will be really interesting to see what impact that has on those using Facebook Lives for their businesses.  

The future of social media

Who knows for sure what the future of social media will look like? These technologies are the preferred modes of communication and connection for more than 3 billion people worldwide, and adoption continues to grow. I suspect rather than be part of a huge platform, there will be more of a specific/shared interest ‘community’ focus; groups, communities and teams optimising the technologies for transfer of knowledge, shared development and collaboration. From a business perspective, these elements are already in existence, both on the native platforms and in enterprise versions. Facebook Groups are really starting to come into their own, offering a platform to gather, discuss and educate in a real-time one to one, one to many, closed or open space.  

Of course, technologies such as AR and artificial intelligence (AI) will become ‘business as usual’ and social media channels will no doubt optimise these.   

The benefits of different platforms

 What unique impact and influence do different social media platforms have?

Twitter, thanks to its brevity, even with the new 280-character limit, is the perfect tool for tuning into the news, people and landscape to gain a quick overview. Connecting with relevant conversations, networking, communicating and brand building.  

Facebook started out as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, sharing updates, photos and videos, but the platform continues to evolve. That said, it’s still far more about community and personal connection. Of course, it is successfully used for business, largely due to its advertising features – it is fast becoming the largest advertising medium in the world, offering unparalleled granular audience and insight targeting. 

LinkedIn is still the network people come to for business. It’s the ultimate online collection of business professionals and organisations, enabling members to nurture current connections and facilitate new ones – whether for business development or recruitment. From a brand and organisation perspective, it’s a perfect vehicle for connecting all team members, harnessing the power of their networks and keeping stakeholders and audiences up to speed with latest news, brand, culture, thought leadership. 

‘The view that social media is a bubble that is ready to burst has been completely dispelled’ 

Instagram, a mobile-first app, offers a simple and fast way to share your life, the life of your organisation, or team members in a visual and engaging way via video, images and smart use of hashtags to build awareness. Instagram Stories enable real-world ‘behind the scenes’ insights. Stories last 24 hours but can be saved into ‘highlight’ themes that don’t disappear until you actively remove them. These are being used not only to build brand presence and engagement, but for direct sales. And of course, being part of Facebook Group Plc, means that again, Instagram’s advertising platform is particularly successful. 

Snapchat may be the new kid on the block (only nine years old – so still no ‘new’), but it has pioneered a lot of the functionality that has been appropriated by the frontrunners. Again, a mobile-first app, Snapchat is a messenger service that allows people to express themselves by sharing pictures and videos in the moment. The ‘snaps’ are designed to disappear after a user-defined number of seconds, but again, can be saved to 24 hour stories. Snapchat’s ‘memories’ feature acts in pretty much the same way as Instagram’s highlight themes. 

Social media influencers

 The main change to social media business models has been the expansion of the revenue models. Advertising options have become broader and targeting of and tailoring to audiences, far more sophisticated. As yet, none of the social media channels offers a ‘paid for’ version. Yet, Facebook and Instagram are starting to experiment with a subscription model, with a small tranche of successful influencers and creators. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. 

Talking of influencers, many businesses and brands have jumped on the ‘influencer marketing’ bandwagon. Lured by big followings, brands and organisations try to ‘fudge’ a relationship, just to leverage the mass audience. But just as many miss the point of social, and use the channels purely for one-way broadcasting, never engaging, not listening – but just pushing their wares, then so too have they often missed the ‘influencer’ point too. 

Influencers, those that have built their own ‘tribe’ are authentic, creative and work hard to keep their audiences engaged. Maintaining a high level of authentic engagement is not achieved without significant effort. Simply throwing enough money at an influencer so that they push any message, leads to a lack of authenticity – and the influencers, and most certainly their audiences, push back and retaliate. Plus of course, there are a lot of ‘fake’ influencers out there. A brand or business needs to check their credibility, tune in and see the real engagement, look at the creativity of the content and who’s really engaging. 

There’s a way to work with influencers that makes sense for businesses – but it has to be a collaborative, authentic and relevant process. My advice is always quality over quantity. 

Using Instagram for business 

Instagram is a serious business tool and is used in a number of ways. It’s the perfect vehicle for sharing brand stories and getting customers involved too. Whether it’s using live streaming or Stories for a ‘behind the scenes’ view of events, conferences, product launches, or teasing new features or collections, it offers a visual view. 

And of course, many brands and organisations get their audiences involved with content creation too – encouraging them to share their images with the brand, which the brand may then feature on their main feed. This provides the featured person with huge kudos and offers a free content supply to the brand or organisation. 

‘Influencers, those that have built their own ‘tribe’ are authentic, creative and work hard to keep their audiences engaged’

There have been recent campaigns like this on Go Pro and National Geographic. Brands such as Nike often have #hashtag campaigns in which they encourage their audience to use, and they’ll spot-select and feature individual users. Again, it gets the audience involved, encourages engagement and user-generated content. And of course, it’s not just super brands that are successful on the channel. The tools and opportunities are open to the masses. 

Let’s not forget the advertising aspects. Instagram shares Facebook’s platform and so many brands and organisations are successfully targeting and retargeting audiences with enticing ad campaigns via the channel. 

Negative impacts on business 

Any social media channel or technology can have a negative impact on business if not understood and used effectively. For example, if you set up social channels and simply push out one-way messages, never interacting with your audience, but instead using them purely as broadcast channels (effectively spamming your audience), then don’t be surprised if you get a bit of stick. 

Social is all about being social. If you’re on social media, it’s a signal you’re open for conversation. Conversation is a two-way thing. Two eyes, two ears, just the one mouth. My advice for successful social media is to use it in accordance and tune in and listen more than you talk.

How has social media impacted the world?

Social technologies have made the world smaller and empowered individuals with a to share their messages and be heard. Just 15 years ago, it would have been extremely difficult for me to contact the people I can now get in touch with in a heartbeat via Twitter, to open a conversation. Regardless of where they are situated, who they are, I am able to open a conversation. And when I do reach out, they usually respond, opening up opportunity for collaboration and conversation. 

Without these technologies, that just couldn’t have happened. Equipped with a smartphone, a message that unites and social technologies, anyone has the opportunity to build a tribe, share their message and change the world – for good or for bad. 

As we’ve seen over the past 15 years, this democratisation has had a significant impact and no doubt will continue to do so both with how businesses and we as a human race evolve. 

‘If you’re on social media, it’s a signal you’re open for conversation’

Michelle Carvill is a strategic marketer, digital agency founder and three times published author in the social media space. Her latest book, published by Kogan Page, May 2018 - ‘#GetSocial – Social Media Strategy and Tactics for Leaders’, helps leaders and game changers to understand social media from a strategic perspective and gain confidence with the social technologies and digital transformation

For more than 10 years Michelle has championed social media, educating, implementing, managing, coaching and consulting literally thousands of people across a range of events and organisations, including the BBC, PWC, LinkedIn, ACC, Air Products, Norbord Europe and the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation. Her insights, models, frameworks and know-how are based on years of experience, learning, testing, adapting, tuning in and understanding what really works. 

Having had a career in strategic marketing for over 30 years Michelle is is a fully qualified strategic marketer, with a MA in Marketing Strategy, a CIM Diploma and a Fellowship at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.