In An Era Of Social Media Distrust, Some Brands Are Finding Ways To Get Intimate

In March of last year, a whistleblower revealed that political data firm Cambridge Analytica gained improper access to private information on more than 50 million Facebook users. One month later, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg faced a congressional hearing where the social network’s data practices were the subject of intense questioning.

Facebook was not the only social network to suffer this level of public scrutiny in 2018. Twitter suspended more than 70 million accounts from its network last year in response to growing public pressure against bots and trolls that were shown to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

In many ways, 2018 marked a turning point in the public’s distrust for social media. Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Report found that 60 percent of people no longer trust social media companies to behave responsibly, and independent research firm Ponemon Institute reports that trust in Facebook has dropped 66 percent.

This increased social media skepticism presents new challenges for brands using these platforms. Users are now less likely to trust celebrity influencers, many of whom have inflated audience counts and are less relatable than friends, family and micro-influencers. At the same time, newer, ephemeral formats, like Stories on Instagram and Snapchat, are growing 15 times faster than traditional news feed-based sharing.

Some brands are rethinking the way they use social media, shifting toward relatable, individualized content to sidestep recent skepticism.

The Guardian, for instance, found that for their Instagram Stories, simple static graphics and quick explainer-style videos vastly outperformed their more polished and labor-intensive videos.

Meanwhile, women’s retailer EVEREVE found that their target consumer loves to engage with them on social, so they make it a priority to repost customer-generated content in their Instagram Stories. A representative for the company explained via email that their digital manager even works off hours to make sure the company is engaging with its target audience at the right times.

Using Snapchat or Instagram Stories is by no means unique — in a recent Hootsuite study, 64 percent of businesses confirmed that they have either implemented Instagram Stories into their social strategy or plan to do so in the next 12 months. But the way these big brands are experimenting with replacing or supplementing high-production value posts with more spontaneous and relatable photos and videos is a savvy way to boost engagement with an audience that has come to expect that kind of interaction from their friends and family, not corporate entities.

Condé Nast Traveler took this idea further by stepping out of the way and letting their fans to talk to each other.

The media company launched a private Facebook group called Women Who Travel, which provides a safe space for passionate female travelers to ask each other questions, leave suggestions and offer encouragement. Since the group is private, it requires moderator permission to join and provides a sense of exclusivity and authenticity that can be hard to find elsewhere on the web. The group has quickly grown to more than 120,000 members strong.

Other brands are choosing to use micro-influencers -- those with thousands of followers, rather than millions -- in lieu of more famous celebrities to access more niche communities and keep their marketing efforts more relatable.

Adidas followed a grassroots approach when they built their Tango Squad program, partnering with more than 1,400 specially selected football-obsessed teens across 11 countries who are leaders in their respective communities. These micro-influencers are a part of an exclusive group that gets access to their sports idols, events and competitions, and can help Adidas design and launch new products. In return, these influencers help spread the word to their teammates, friends, and followers.

While Adidas chose to use Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to coordinate and stay in contact with their Tango Squad, other brands are using messenger apps to communicate with their audience at large.

Beauty retailer Sephora, for instance, launched the Sephora Assistant, a bot for messenger that gives customers the ability to book in-store makeover appointments in just a few simple steps. The bot, which has been live since late 2016, has cut down booking steps by over 60 percent and increased in-store bookings by 11 percent.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, meanwhile, became the first airline to expand their service to Facebook Messenger. KLM customers can access their bookings, get flight service updates, and contact customer service — all directly from the messaging app.

The airline has seen a 40 percent increase in customer interactions since it began using Messenger, and today 15 percent of KLM’s boarding passes are sent via that service.

The number of customer-company conversations hosted on messaging apps is growing at a rapid clip: two-thirds of consumers have increased their use of messaging with businesses in the last two years and 53 percent say they are more likely to do business with companies they can message.

The reason is simple: direct messaging offers customers a greater sense of empowerment, not to mention relief from waiting in long queues or phone holds to resolve a customer service issue. Being able to seamlessly contact a large company to resolve an issue -- or get access to their booking info -- dramatically mitigates the slow bureaucratic stresses of dealing with larger brands.

Companies looking to take these customer relationships to the next level are focusing not only on alleviating stress, but also on proactively improving the customer experience. Sephora and Nike, for instance, are part of a select group of companies participating in a closed beta test of a new Facebook feature that lets customers message companies to see products ahead of time in augmented reality.

The fact that customers change their preferred methods for receiving corporate communications comes as no surprise. The recent skepticism of celebrity influencers and social media channels evolved from a former trust of those same outlets at the expense of traditional TV commercials. For companies looking to ride this most recent wave of social skepticism, the key appears to be developing a more relatable, intimate and customized relationship with each customer.

That is, until the tide changes again.

Here's How Major Brands Measure Social Media Impact

In 2017, then-16-year-old Carter Wilkerson jokingly asked Wendy’s on Twitter how many retweets it would take to score him a year’s worth of free chicken nuggets. To Wilkerson’s disbelief, Wendy’s actually responded “18 Million,” and he pleaded with the Twitterverse to help him reach that noble goal.

That Twitter exchange has since racked up 3.5 million retweets, breaking the record Ellen DeGeneres set with her 2014 Oscars selfie. Wilkerson got his nuggets in the end, and Wendy’s earned a flood of praise and positive press for the virality of the social media interaction.

Within 6 weeks, Wendy’s had earned 2.5 billion media impressions and 5 million mentions of Wilkerson’s quest for nuggets, increasing overall mentions of the brand by 376 percent.

Businesses pay a lot for that kind of virality -- it’s a dream come true for content marketers everywhere. But what kind of impact does Wendy’s social media activity have on its bottom line? What’s the right way to measure this kind of customer engagement, and does Wendy’s sell any more chicken nuggets as a result?

How To Measure Social Media ROI

Measuring return on investment (ROI) is relatively easy for businesses that can tie their social media metrics directly to financial gains. When a direct-to-consumer brand invests $10,000 exclusively on Facebook ads and tracks $30,000 in online sales, for example, they know the monetary return of their social media efforts.

But many businesses don’t have that luxury. Wendy’s, for example, does not sell its hamburgers online through easily-trackable lead funnels. Measuring social media ROI can be difficult, and the challenges are in some ways unique to the nature of the platforms .

Nowhere else do businesses have customers engaging on a single channel for so many different reasons. Wendy’s Twitter account, for example, fields customer service complaints and interacts with superfans while simultaneously roasting competitors and promoting new deals.

"Never before have we seen so many departments with overlapping business objectives having to play in the same sandbox,” said Teresa Caro, the SVP of Marketing at Atlanticus. “Each department has its own KPIs, which poses a tremendous challenge when it comes time to measure the impact of any one individual social media campaign.”

That challenge can be lessened by detailing ahead of time what success means.

“You have to tailor your objectives, goals, and KPIs for each individual campaign,” suggests Ben Ricciardi, CEO of the full service agency Times10. “If the goal is sales, then you’ll measure success by your financial return. If the goal is brand awareness, then you’ll measure the impact by impressions, followers, or views.”

But, experts warn, it’s a mistake to conflate the two. Trying to measure financial return on a brand awareness campaign, or vice versa, is where ROI conversations get incredibly messy.

“When you have an organic audience on social, the value you provide them is different than an advertisement,” explained Todd Lombardo, Managing Director of Brand & Social at creative agency The Many (previously Mistress). “The measurement should reflect that.”

To measure improvements in brand awareness and loyalty, social media channels offer the usual metrics like followers, views, impressions, shares, and comments. Though these measurements sometimes get flack for being ‘vanity metrics,’ that criticism typically stems from business owners whose goal on social media is direct sales rather than brand awareness or brand loyalty.

Ricciardi encourages businesses not to underestimate what it means to grow their organic following and engagement on social.

“Choosing to follow a brand means they're sharing something compelling,” Ricciardi said. “When people follow you, they’re making it clear they have loyalty towards your brand and the content being shared.”

Caroline Kalentzos, the CEO of PR and branding agency POSH PR, agrees emphatically.

“We know that younger audiences have no problem switching brand loyalty, so likes, comments, and shares are crucial components to defining a social media account’s success,” Kalentzos explained. “At the end of the day, a client who feels ongoing intimacy with your brand is more valuable than a one-and-done client.”

From that perspective, Wendy’s return on investment is pretty easy to measure. Assuming brand loyalty and awareness is the goal, then the stats speak for themselves: 213,000 new Twitter followers, 23.9 million visits to Wendy’s Twitter profile, over 2.5 billion earned media impressions from 1,076 placements, over 5 million online mentions of Carter's quest for Wendy's nuggets, and a 376 percent increase in mentions of the Wendy’s brand.

If, on the other hand, increased sales is the goal, then measurement gets much trickier.

To Measure Financial ROI On Non-Financial Goals, Wider Is Better

In some ways, the difficulties of measuring financial ROI on social media are no different than the ones businesses face with other media outlets. When Wendy’s earns 2.5 billion impressions, it has to assign a monetary value to that level of consumer reach to get some semblance of monetary ROI.

“Major brands have been doing research around impressions and engagement levels and the corresponding increase in sales,” explained Caro, who has years of experience working with top brands on social media. “It’s very much like measuring the impact of a TV advertisement.”

But solo measurements can only go so far. Evan Berglund, Senior Partner at the Gonzberg Agency, suggests that consumers today move seamlessly between channels within seconds -- from social media on their phone, to a subway ad, to a billboard, and back to their phone again to check email. For businesses looking to tie non-financial goals back to their bottom line, experts suggest widening the measurement scope.

“There is no easy way to financially quantify what each social media interaction is worth,” Ricciardi explained. “It’s much more effective to take all the marketing channels you’re budgeting for and compare it against the general lift or decline you see in sales.”

In other words, a more accurate financial correlation comes from measuring an entire marketing mix, and aligning it holistically with a brand’s business objectives.

With that in mind, we can begin to understand how Wendy’s might measure the financial impact of its activity on social media. After all, the brand enjoyed a 49.7 percent increase in profit from $129.6 million in 2016 to $194 million in 2017. It may be impossible to know how much of that increase is due to the #NuggsforCarter campaign in particular, but with a wider perspective that looks at all of the brand’s marketing activities, Wendy’s could get pretty close.

New Research From 200 Top Brands Shows How Effective Instagram Stories Really Are

There’s only so much space in the Instagram feed. That harsh reality has inspired brands to try a variety of creative growth hacks and trends to reach larger audiences on the social media platform.

Commenting on celebrity photos and joining Instagram “pods” are two common ways accounts have jockeyed for attention in a crowded market. Meanwhile, some of the most popular meme pages are experimenting with turning their accounts private so that people have to follow them in order to see their posts.

But Buffer’s latest research suggests that posting to Instagram Stories is perhaps a more sustainable solution to reaching larger audiences.

The social media management platform partnered with Delmondo, a social media analytics platform, to analyze more than 15,000 Instagram stories from 200 of the world’s top brands in one of the largest Instagram Stories research studies to date.

The study found that the more stories top Instagram accounts post, the higher their median reach and impressions. Accounts that posted a series of 10 stories earned twice as many median impressions as accounts that didn’t post at all, and those with 20 stories earned five times the number of median impressions than the non-story posters.

Take one look at the Instagram feed and it’s obvious why that might be so. Instagram Stories take up additional real estate at the top of the news feed, giving brands another opportunity to get their content seen. The more a brand can maintain its position at the top of the feed -- as well as in it -- the more often it will reach its audience.

But it’s not just about improving reach. The users who consume Instagram stories content (all 400 million of them) are so engaged that brands see a 75 percent completion rate on their stories, meaning that their audience stays to watch all the way to the last story frame.

In fact, according to Instagram’s internal data, one-third of the most-viewed stories come from businesses, and one in five stories earns a direct message from its viewers.

Engagement rates on Instagram Stories are so high that brands are finding early success advertising on the feature. Oreo’s eye-catching ads on Instagram Stories helped the cookie brand drive significant growth in ad recognition and ad recall with a 17 percent lower cost per lead.

L’Oréal Paris Russia saw similar success, with a cost per click 22 times lower compared to their average result using Instagram’s carousel ad format. While the costs fell, L’Oréal ads simultaneously enjoyed a 16-point lift in ad recall.

For businesses looking to follow in Oreo and L’Oréal’s footsteps and dramatically improve Instagram reach, timing is everything.

Buffer and Delmondo found the largest spikes in completion rate fell outside of normal U.S. working hours (4-6am EST, 8-10am EST, 12pm-2pm EST, and 8pm-10pm EST).

While this is a helpful starting point, it’s worth remembering that these spikes are averages. In other words, different brands are likely to have very different optimal posting times. While a sports team may find more success directly before and after big games, a travel brand may earn more reach on weekends when wanderlust is highest.  

Timing isn’t the only factor, though. Even the number of stories posted at one time can impact a brand’s Instagram analytics.

Buffer and Delmondo found that one to seven stories was the optimal posting length to maximize the number of people who make it all the way through a series of Instagram story posts. After that seven-story threshold, completion rate dropped below 70 percent.

Then again, the number of stories posted positively correlates with an increase in reach and impressions. So while completion rate did drop to 60 percent for a series of 20 stories, the median impressions was still nearly three times more than the seven-story threshold. In other words, the more a brand posts on Stories, the more it can expect to reach a larger audience but get diminishing returns on completion rate.

Regardless of the number of stories a brand posts, prioritizing the best or most important content first is a good idea. Doing so gives people the highest chance to see what matters and maximizes their chances of clicking through.

Finding out what that ‘best’ content is, though, requires patience and testing. While Louis Vuitton posts highly polished video ads, The Guardian found that for their Instagram Stories, less labor-intensive posts like simple static graphics and quick explainer videos outperformed their professionally-produced videos.

Thankfully, that testing process doesn’t have to be super painful. Those looking for deeper analytics than Instagram offers naturally can try Delmondo to get a more detailed view of who is watching their content and when. That way, jumping on the latest growth hacking trend can be more of a scientific experiment and less of a guessing game.

How 'Boring' Industries Are Rebranding To Appeal To Younger Generations

Mutual Funds. Mortgage. Insurance. Health plans.

If you’re already nodding off, that’s to be expected. The financial services and healthcare industries don’t necessarily have a reputation for being “fun.” Even so, young consumers are growing up and need loans, checking and savings accounts, and the ability to navigate the healthcare system on their own.

Oscar Health is one company that’s consciously shedding their industry’s “boring” label with a goal to make health insurance less confusing, more convenient, and — as they put it — more human.

The company has an easy-to-use mobile and web app that houses members’ pertinent health information and lets you look for doctors, book appointments and see details of your claims. The app is supported by a personalized concierge team and members have 24/7 access to board-certified physicians if they need a diagnosis in a pinch. It even comes with a step-tracking feature that offers members $1 a day when they meet their daily step goal.

Though the company’s digital-first approach attracts consumers of all generations, it is particularly appealing for digital natives whose purchasing habits have been shaped in the smartphone era.

“It’s the ease and convenience that people across all ages want, but that the younger generations have come to expect,” said Sara Wajnberg, SVP of Product at Oscar Health.

While Oscar seeks to disrupt health insurance, another company -- Capsule -- is focused on reducing the frustration that comes with multiple, inefficient trips to the pharmacy. The company offers free same-day delivery of prescription medicine through its mobile app and provides access to its team of pharmacists via text, email, or phone.

Capsule is also able to anticipate questions about insurance coverage, remind patients about refills when they would have otherwise forgotten, and offer competitive prescription pricing.

And while the healthcare industry is ripe for disruption, health-related companies aren’t the only ones offering modern convenience through digital upgrades to appeal to younger consumers. Financial institutions are also doubling down to deliver that level of expected speed, ease and convenience.

Fintech frontrunner Fiserv, for instance, provides tech solutions to thousands of banks and credit unions across the US to make banking simpler, more trustworthy -- and even, more fun -- for younger consumers. Real-time money movement, biometric authentication, voice banking, online and mobile account opening and the ability for the cardholder to control their debit and credit card functionality with their CardValet app are just a few specific examples.

“The financial services industry is in a period of rapid transformation,” said Vincent Brennan, President of the Credit Union Solutions division at Fiserv. “Evolving consumer expectations are a catalyst for change as financial institutions work to deliver the speed, ease and convenience people want and need. Fiserv is providing the technology that enables these experiences with solutions that are in step with how people live and work today.”

Vibrant Credit Union, one of Fiserv’s clients, recently revamped its brand image and in-branch technology capabilities to appeal to the youngest members. Matt McCombs, President and CEO, reported that since its 2011 overhaul, membership of 18 to 34-year-olds has increased 75 percent. He credits this to the credit union’s modern technology, such as video banking, and customer experience, including their branded ice cream truck and events like “Talk Like a Pirate” day.

Wealthsimple, a popular automated investment manager (robo-advisor, for short), takes a similar approach to save customers time. The company says it takes less than five minutes to sign up and get invested in a customized portfolio (hence the “simple” in Wealthsimple’s name).

The platform is also particularly beginner-friendly, which is not the first adjective you might otherwise use to describe the investing industry. But that’s the point, says Mike Giepert, Executive Creative Director at Wealthsimple.

“[We’re] demystifying investing for younger people by making smart and low-cost investment services accessible and more human.”

That accessibility and digital-first approach is particularly appealing to younger consumers whose purchasing habits have been shaped in the smartphone era. But with those digital roots comes a healthy dose of skepticism. Headlines about fake news and Instagram feeds flooded with sponsored posts have led younger generations to be increasingly cautious about the trustworthiness of online information.

Yes, younger generations undoubtedly want convenience; but they also want companies that offer transparency, and are even willing to pay more for that privilege.

NerdWallet has made that transparency part of its core business model. The personal finance website was founded in 2009 to help consumers get more clarity around financial decisions. NerdWallet offers tailored recommendations and side-by-side comparisons for credit and debit cards, insurance quotes, checking accounts, and more. Think of it like a Kayak for financial advice.

The company often earns referral fees when people sign up for the services they write about, but the company discloses all its partners on its website and is adamant that those partnerships only influence which products they choose to review -- not the nature of the reviews themselves.

“Bottom line?” the site asks readers rhetorically. “We’re on your side, even if it means we don’t make a cent.”

Policygenius is another website whose entire business model is built around transparency. The company is an independent insurance marketplace that gives younger customers a side-by-side comparison shopping experience they’re used to. Only instead of flights or hotels, consumers compare insurance quotes.

Of course, offering a mobile-first, transparent service is only half the battle for companies seeking to tap into this market with up to $143 billion in spending power. The other half is branding those initiatives in such a way that younger consumers will see past the industry’s boring stigma and give the service a try.

“We talk to younger consumers where they are most -- on their phone,” explains Alison McGlone, Head of Brand at NerdWallet.

“Our marketing spend is primarily focused on Google, social media (Facebook, Instagram) and TV, and even our TV campaign is designed to find them outside of the living room, wherever they watch content, since we know that is how their consumption has evolved.”

NerdWallet’s approach appears to be working. The company reports more than 100 million people — a third of American consumers — come to NerdWallet every year for advice when making financial decisions.

Those familiar with Progressive’s iconic Flo advertisements may be wondering what it is that makes them so memorable. Love them or hate them, they’re engaging because they connect with consumers on a human level.

That insight is what helped inform Progressive’s Parentamorphosis campaign, based on the premise that ordinary people start turning into their parents the moment they purchase their first home. (The latest episode depicts a group of new homeowners in a therapy-style support meeting who trade hilariously relatable dad-isms. “Progressive can’t save you from becoming your parents,” the narrator admits at the end, “but we can save you money when you bundle on home and auto.”)

“It’s all about the right content in the right context,” says Jeff Charney, Progressive’s CMO.

There may not be one right answer to the right content and the right context. But one thing is for certain: young people reward brands they feel “get them.” Companies in traditionally “boring” industries may be fighting an uphill battle to break through the stigma, but untold riches await the companies who can most effectively tap into the psyche of young consumers and offer a purchasing experience congruent with their values.