The Social Media Secret’s Out! Now, Share It!

I have recently been considering the marketing applications of the ‘dictator’s’ dilemma as coined by Clay Shirky*. It strikes me that social media, which has been used so successfully by the masses politically in the Philippines, China, Spain and Thailand and is feared by the governments there, is exactly the application and embodiment of effective marketing that is also being pursued by Facebook; recently Venezuela enacted a new law to tighten control of the internet and this could be a sign that President Hugo Chavez fears the power of social media.

Facebook in particular is proving to be a phenomenal hit in the Americas, and here are recent figures for Facebook usage in selected markets in the Americas:

Country Users Dec 2009 Rank Users Dec 2010 Rank Growth
US 101,303,240 145,749,580 44%
Mexico 6,505,040 18,488,700 184%
Argentina 7,387,120 12,359,260 67%
Colombia 7,243,520 11,665,860 61%
Brazil 2,413,900 8,821,880 266%
Chile 5,808,020 7,586,060 31%
Venezuela 4,952,340 7,552,760 53%
Peru 1,510,480 3,888,560 157%

Note that all of these countries are in the top 30 global markets for Facebook, demonstrating a real interest in social media in the region. The main social networking site in Brazil remains Orkut (owned by Google) for the moment, but the explosive growth of Facebook there may threaten this status as happened with MySpace elsewhere.

Targeted advertising to Facebook accounts, which is how the social networking site earns revenue, sees friends having the choice whether to recommend the ads to other friends. Facebook has been one of the first to pick up on the power of this advertising technique in a big way. Conveyance by social media is good, but not always enough; real effect comes in the two step process, where the message is seen via social media, but then importantly transferred to a close associate, friend or family member. A recommendation from someone known is far more influencing than from a stranger and the fact that it is being conveyed through an admired medium, technology, is also legitimising.  This has the effect of both media influence and then conversational influence.

It is like learning: when it is reinforced and engaged with, it is remembered and embedded. It is in this second step that opinions about buying or not buying are formed. Mass texting of shared communications saw this second conversational step form political opinions and action in China, Thailand or the Philippines. This social ratification and recommendation is very powerful. In the commercial world it is what every brand is hoping for; it creates an intense bond between the product and the consumer and then potential friend of the consumer. This is the essence and aim of viral marketing and social media is the mechanism by which it happens.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from modern political struggles and regimes who have tried to clamp down on access to media like Google and The New York Times online. Some have even closed down whole networks to avoid viral response, but in so doing, they have also closed down their business communications and negatively impacted their economy.  Such lessons convince me of the power of viral marketing especially when you want to reach distant/remote populations such as in the Andean regions. Although, it has to be noted that effective viral marketing often takes place in compacted populations. Then products can most easily be located and distributed to large concentrated populations e.g. in Sao Paulo, Mexico City or Bogota. Concentrated populations, being touched by viral communications, offer rich pickings potentially, but the message has to be targeted, clear and meaningful.

It has to be remembered that social media is not only the Internet, but probably more importantly for Latin America, and arguably for the rest of the world as well, cell phones, especially smart phones. Vodaphone has seen this opportunity and it has introduced a fairly simple phone in India in July 2009, marketed at an accessible price point, and has determined relevant features for the target market including text, calculator and radio. This then gives a greater population improved communication and obvious personal and business benefits; it also provides access to information which is socially relevant and even health related and urgent. This however presupposes a certain amount of numeracy and literacy. Still, it gives marketers an opportunity to reach distant and dispersed segments of society in a very economic and personal way and a way which may well encourage a sharing of this marketing information for compounded effect!

This also means that viral marketing – using social media – is creating a fairer playing field for SMEs as it has been doing for uniting opposition to unfair political practices around the world. As authoritarian or conservative governments fear social media, so do large corporations and oligopolies with huge marketing budgets.  Introducing a product which is clearly superior to theirs, and which begins to erode their market share, will no doubt generate a backlash. Social media is however not only a good marketing mechanism in order to introduce a product; it is also a relatively cheap defence mechanism against such corporate responses. In the past, prohibitive marketing and advertising costs, especially in order to reach remoter less concentrated markets, would have made this impossible for SMEs. Today this is not the case. The question then is which products or services lend themselves to viral marketing in Latin America, America or elsewhere for that matter of fact. Is there any that do, more than others? Are there any limits? I’m not sure that there are.

Another question again is culture; does it raise its head? Personally, I think not. From my experience of living and working on four continents, I think that technology not only physically crosses all borders, but social media communications, through the means of technology, is also more trusted than many face to face communications with ‘strangers’. Technology is not a strange bed-fellow; in fact it is a desirable one which is part and parcel of marketing targeted at people who aspire to be ‘more’. People want to improve and be seen to be improving; technology facilitates that and social media messaging for viral marketing can benefit from that receptiveness.

*Sirky, C. (2010) The Political Power of Social Media Technology, The Public Sphere and Political Change Foreign Affairs Volume 90, No.1, pp. 28-41.

Authored by Pam Mason


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