Heather Rast/Tree Full of Owls

What happens to your brand in social media?

Interesting question. Here’s another. What happens to your brand in direct mail? In collateral? That’s different, you might say. Traditional media are channels that can be shaped by someone in marketing. Internal quality controls ensure the right image is presented in the design and message. All stakeholders get to weigh in so that the needs of every department are covered.

Does the formula sound familiar? It should; it’s the way most marketing communications has historically been conceived, managed and produced. Marketing designed the messages, and target customers consumed them. In some cases, select audience reactions were gauged and factored back into the communications machine for re-formulation. Claims or offers may have been tweaked, or “marketing innovation” campaigns launched.

But that’s not the brand marketing of tomorrow, or even today. Although marketing is still designing brand messages, social media – stemming from the very innate, human desire to collaborate and freely share information – has given consumers the opportunity to filter or block a brand entirely. Or, selectively interact with the brand on one’s own personal terms – whether to address a customer-service problem, make simple inquiries, participate in chosen activities, or opt in to voluntarily receive news and updates based on trust established through performance.

When brand-consumer interaction becomes real-time, it becomes much harder for the brand to control the message internal ambassadors want to send, and the (often) modulated tone executives believe to be appropriate. The issue of control is one of the concerns Marketing departments face, and one of the reasons public relations personnel recommend training for corporate executives prior to speaking with the media.

Planning and preparation, while obviously still critical elements for marketing communications, has to become more nubile and responsive. Traditional gateways are ceding ground to knowledgeable and empowered publics. Expected behaviors are giving way to online sentiment assessments and one-to-one resolutions. Marketing must flex to accommodate the change in consumer behavior brought about, in part, by technology.

Beyond the practical realities a smart phone provides or how it may enable decision-making, the adoption of personal communication devices (think iPhone, Android, tablet and even Google TV) and rise in data connectivity signifies the change our culture is experiencing. We’re done with making choices from the information delivered to us. On a four-option multiple-choice question about what a brand stands for, many of us are now choosing “E” for “Whatever answer I arrive at by mixing my personal experience (online and off) with feedback from my family, friends and peers.” Eight to 10 years ago, we’d still be filling in one of the four pre-printed bubbles. Today we’re creating a blank and filling it in.

Simply put, your brand’s ideal customers have a spotlight and the stage, their own audience network, and have eschewed the script marketing carefully prepared. A customer’s personal experience with your products or services, and the opinions they gather from their peer networks help create a perceived reality about what your brand means. And they’ll share that perception with others as they lead their lives, discussing your brand (and others) in the halls, offices, waiting rooms and aisles where need and usefulness reign.

Brand marketing still has a place and a purpose. Its role in creating awareness and driving interest is a pivotal part of the conversion path. One of its shortcomings, however, is the presumption that audiences are waiting patiently to receive communications, that there aren’t any other routes on which people may develop perceptions and opinions about a brand. Today’s marketing can’t exclusively rely on the effectiveness of one-way communication flow for success; it must respond and participate as much as initiate. Sometimes a situation – such as a series of comments exchanged on a post on your brand’s blog – should even be allowed to play out, without marketing intervention.

Remember that your brand doesn’t live entirely in a sterile environment of ardent supporters intent on nurturing its image and strengthening its position. The brand exists external to the organization, in the minds of ideal customers and detractors alike. Technology enables new communication channels like social media, and empowers users with a reach and frequency unmatched in any other channel.

What happens to your brand in social media may be a question you’d rather sidestep. It may be one you think you can deflect. But answers are being given, if only by those (growing) audiences who have formed an opinion and are passionate about sharing it with others.

 Heather Rast is principal of Insights & Ingenuity, a digital marketing company in the Cedar Rapids area. Learn more at http://insightsandingenuity.com.

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Samantha Kollasch currently serves as Chief Digital Officer at the Corridor Business Journal. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a BS in Management Information Systems.