What use is Twitter to a detergent manufacturer?

A recent comment by one of my students reminded me of an article I read in the New York Times from January 2013 which asked: Can social media sell soap? The author wasn’t so much concerned with detergent, as products we have come to associate with mass marketing and that didn’t seem to have a place in the emerging social media.

We’re talking here about decades and decades of advertising in the mass media, the success of which were measured by highly unreliable methods, based on illusory segmentation, in the belief that by making your brand highly visible you would increase sales. And the best way to achieve that visibility was through the mass media, after which would come popularity, positioning, promotions…

But when the public was able to talk back to advertisers, brands were faced with a difficult question: how do you talk about products, such as soap, which nobody wants to talk about? Once you’ve established that it washes well, or doesn’t, and that it is expensive or cheap, you’ve pretty much exhausted the topic. As a senior executive at a well-known detergent brand once said to me: “Our product is great, but it’s not something normal people would want to talk about, and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to know anybody that did want to talk about detergent.”

Initially, brands producing these kinds of goods tried repeating the formula they had followed on the mass media for decades on the social media: they tried to attract as many followers as possible, tried to create conversations that made no sense, paid agencies to convert their brands into social media zombies, and responded to complaints from their customers (which was probably the only meaningful thing the social media allowed them to do) and soon lost interest in the social networks.

A strategy based on competitions and promotions was not sustainable, while the general public soon lost interest in the novelty of being able to communicate with a real person in a company via the social networks.

Three years on, the question as to whether the social networks were any use for selling detergent remains largely unanswered. Should brands use the social network for marketing their products in the hope of increasing their sales, or should they stick to traditional approaches such as trying to create brand awareness through spots, banners and hoardings? Is somebody really going to buy this or that detergent after seeing it on the social networks for any reason other than straightforward advertising? Should we see the social networks as an extended version of the traditional advertisement, a way to reach clients through more carefully thought out marketing strategies, or stick to the old scattergun approach?

There are pros and cons to using the social network to create brand awareness. As opposed to a television advertisement, the social networks allow for better segmentation that are less intrusive. Advertising based on interruption makes sense when people can’t do anything about it, as happens when they are watching television, but it’s a very different matter when the user can simply skip an advertisement, or block it entirely. Advertisers that try the same approach on the social media as on television simply end up annoying everybody and achieve little in terms of increased sales or popularity.

But trying to create content based around, say, washing powder, makes little sense, for the reason mentioned earlier: nobody wants to talk about it.

So, while legions of social media consultants seem determined to convince the big brands about the need to create a conversation, generate content and persuade people to look for them on the social networks, the reality is that most people are not going to be remotely interested in that content, wouldn’t dream of talking about it, and haven’t wasted a minute of their lives looking for it.

Perhaps these brands should remember where the term soap opera comes from. Or perhaps these traditional brands need to ask the public what they would like to see about their products on the social networks, assuming we’d like to see anything at all related to a washing up liquid. In short, what strategies might work for the big brands on the social networks?

(En español, aquí)