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The trend to unfriend - brands beware!

Adrian Porter Head of Strategic Research

In the Trends section of the London Evening Standard on Monday, Joshi Herrmann (@JoshiEHerrmann) wrote an interesting, and in places amusing, article about his and others’ attempts to cull the number of friends they have on their social networks. He mentions David Shing (@shingy) from AOL who last month said that ‘the age of treating the web as a popularity contest is over’. Shing apparently ‘predicted that the next phase of online usage will be unfriending and unfollowing, as people try to reduce the noise of their social networks and make them more relevant again’.

So what criteria do people use when deciding to cull? Herrmann, in getting rid of 300 ‘friends’ used ‘the social pint formula’. Would he enjoy sitting down for a pint with this person? If not – the chop! On this basis one must assume that Herrmann doesn’t have any brands as his friends, and if this trend is in fact that, and not just a journalistic aberration, then it seems feasible that not many other people do either. This appears to be the case according to a recent ‘Digital Life’ survey by TNS; nearly two-thirds of Brits don’t want bothering by big-name brands on Facebook, Twitter etc.

For a long time we have said to clients that to be successful in the social space they must not push traditional sales messages and that they need to adopt the tone of the medium (or a suitable personality), listen as well as talk, and wherever possible offer some sort of value, opinion, or insight.

This of course has been difficult for some organisations to grasp, as illustrated by numerous social media experts’ presentations where an image of the marketer shouting his message with a megaphone is replaced by a ‘listening ear’, or a two-way conversation.

However, marketers want to be strategically proactive and usually in a manner that they can control, so in entering the social space they tend to rely on traditional messages and services, press releases and product promotions, rather than tactical intervention on social ‘issues’. It’s important to remember here, and the clue is in the title, that ‘Social Networks’ are about interaction.

In an interesting comment piece on The Drum website, Jonathan Priestley (@Jonpriestley) from Umpf describes how Dove ‘saw the popularity of its Facebook page soar, when it made a comment about an incident of bullying that had apparently taken place to one contestant during a weekend broadcast of The X-Factor’. 2000 ‘likes’ and 100 comments in an hour left Dove with an unexpected success, but how could they capitalize on this? Jonathan offers some interesting tactical and strategic options that might well have seen Dove owning the anti-bullying debate. But as he rightly points out, the moment that Dove, or any brand, attempts to revert to self-serving promotional activity on the back of such social success they run the risk of turning their audience against them, or at least being ‘unfriended’.

In his piece Herrmann quotes the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a friend. I have to say that in my version of the dictionary, his definition does not appear. However in my version, one of the definitions is ‘One who is not an enemy, or is on the same side’. This seems to me to be a suitable description for brands to remember, since if they have any chance of remaining relevant in the social space they will need to demonstrate that they are in fact on the same side as those who befriend them, and give them a reason to remain friends.