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Big Brands Are Missing the 'Social' in Social Media

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson lifts a Virgin America teammate on the red carpet during the celebration of a new nonstop service from Los Angeles International to Las Vegas McCarran airports

Photograph by Bob Riha, Jr./Virgin America via Getty Images

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson lifts a Virgin America teammate on the red carpet during the celebration of a new nonstop service from Los Angeles International to Las Vegas McCarran airports

A recent report from Forrester Research (FORR) found that a third of U.S. marketers surveyed were dissatisfied with their social marketing results. Meanwhile, only 38 percent of those surveyed targeted their fans on social networks, and just 38 percent targeted friends of fans.

You would think those results would give marketers pause. Forrester also reports, however, that U.S. marketers are pouring more than $2 billion annually into social media—including ads and promoted content—to try to reach the 1 billion-plus social media users.

What many big social media advertisers have failed to grasp is the “social” component of social media. To date, many brands have focused on individuals rather than relationships among individuals and the economic power of those relationships. Who is most likely to influence their friends? Who is most likely to share with friends? Who is most likely to buy or take some other action? Those are vital questions to address to truly unlock the social value of an audience.

That effort starts with a brand redesigning its digital advertising so individuals are encouraged to engage their social networks on the brand’s behalf. If the campaign is paired with the proper analytics, a brand gains visibility into how its offer is playing out among friends and their followers and among brand “likers” vs. “non-likers.” It can understand who is influencing whom to take action.

Many major brands today, however, are not taking full advantage of their social advertising opportunities. For instance, Target’s (TGT) current “Give with Friends” campaign on Facebook (FB) lets consumers choose an e-gift card design, invite friends to contribute, then give a gift together with them. By simply leveraging paid media in tandem with the social activation, Target would be able to have more of its audience do the selling for them and reach a new audience in the process.

In March, Virgin America unveiled a promotion to mark the launch of its nonstop flight service from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Newark, N.J. The “Fly Like a Boss” campaign offered an engaging social media contest on Twitter and Facebook with attractive goodies, including the chance to score a ticket to the launch and attend a Google+ (GOOG) hangout onboard with Virgin Group Chief Executive Officer Richard Branson and Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore. While the campaign was a winner, it missed an opportunity to encourage people to refer the offer to friends. Were social analytics tied to automated advertising efforts, Virgin could have identified key buyers, sharers, and influencers—and consumers like them—based on their social actions to further improve future promotions.

If you’re someone like Buzzfeed, with content that is so darn cute, timely, or jarring that it becomes infectiously viral right away, it’s not as critical to deliver a social experience that combines gaming with a shareable reward. Content consumption and sharing will do the heavy lifting of delivering that new audience, and the offer can be a tasteful companion.

But for most brands, unconnected tactics in social media aren’t going to gain traction with people who are there to hang out and share cool stuff with their friends and family. Instead, brands need to create the architecture that ignites the “social” in social media if they are truly going to thrive.

Parsons is founder and chief executive officer of Aditive, an advertising technology firm. He can be reached at

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