Fail whale: Brands miss the mark on social media

A new study suggests that 54 per cent of Canadians do not want to engage with brands via social media and that businesses are wasting time and money trying to reach people online since they don't realize many consumers resent big brands invading their social networks.

The global "Digital Life" study, released by TNS Canada, also reveals that Canadians engage less with brands online (28 per cent) compared to the worldwide average of 47 per cent.

Although only 44 per cent of Canadians see social networks as a good place to learn about brands, this goes up considerably to 81 per cent when a friend recommends or endorses at brand.

"It's a digital wasteland out there; winning and maintaining brand loyalty is now harder than ever," says Ron Caughlin, vice-president, marketing and digital, TNS Canada. "Canadians do act differently than others around the world on the Internet. What stands out is we're not that excited about being infiltrated with brands or advertising in the social media space."

Caughlin says misguided digital strategies are generating mountains of digital waste, from friendless Facebook accounts to blogs no one reads.

"The role of advocacy in social media is something that marketers need to be aware of in the social space," he continues. "It's about engaging in a meaningful way with your consumers. What's important to understand is consumers use social tools as their own personal space. It's not a space that was created for companies or brands and when they infiltrate that, there's a lack of trust that's gained."

The study also states that 39 per cent of Canadians who post comments about companies on social networks often do so for the simple desire to share advice.

Dave Fleet, vice-president of digital, Edelman Canada in Toronto, says he didn't think there was much ground-breaking data to be had in this latest TNS report but it does reaffirm a lot of companies need to adapt the way they approach marketing in social media.

"We need to stop asking people whether or not they want to engage with companies," he says. "In general, marketers and researchers need to stop talking about engagement for the sake of engagement.

"People don't want to engage with a company. That's common sense. They want help or information. It's about identifying a need that people have and then going about serving it."

Meanwhile, Dave Jones, vice-president, social strategy, at Proximity Canada in Toronto, says every country has different dynamics with respect to how they trust institutions and companies.

"What concerns me is if this sends a negative signal as we're only a few years into brands actively participating in the social space in any real way, and by extension, consumers participating with brands in the social space," he remarks. "We're in the early stages of what that will look like over time."

Jones disagrees with the notion that social media has the power to erode brand loyalty through its very existence.

"Brands have the ability to engender loyalty by the products they deliver, how they treat and value their customers, and how that exchange happens in whatever channels they choose to connect with consumers," he says. "It's true there's been a lot of bad actors along the way but go back to the 1950s and look at some of the TV advertisements that was done. Some of it was horrific. But that doesn't mean that TV advertising stopped working."

The report also states that Canadians like to praise more than complain online (16 per cent versus 12 per cent). And yet Canadians and Americans are still the most likely nationalities to complain about brands online (12 per cent) compared to 11 per cent in the U.K.

"We need to stop thinking about social media in terms of the same old way of marketing," Fleet continues. "We need more meaningful interactions with people . . . it's about providing useful information when people need it and in real-time and that's where the power of this stuff is."

Interestingly, a quarter (25 per cent) of Canadians see social networks as a place to buy products compared to 48 per cent across fast-growth markets such as India. In that country, an estimated 59 per cent see social networks as a good place to buy products from brands.

Social media purchase power

Proximity's Jones says he's yet to see a large amount of Canadians making purchases through social networks but it is a developing opportunity for brands.

"The expectation from analysts is $30 billion worth of (product) sales will go through social media by 2015 globally. That's not a huge amount but it is a significant uptrend year-over-year," he says. "I think we'll see companies start to figure out ways to turn that into a business-positive opportunity for them or not, if it's not the right channel for them."

When it comes to online shopping habits, Asian consumers are leading the adoption of group buying and purchase via the mobile Web (read: smartphones, tablets). Almost half (46 per cent) of digital consumers in China already use group-buying tools in stark contrast to Canada where adoption rates are as low as 13 per cent.

The adoption of shopping via smartphones is also on rise in the Canada with 13 per cent of mobile Internet users doing so. However, Canada trails mobile shoppers in China and South Korea at 34 per cent.

"The role of the mobile device is driving pent-up demand especially in Canada as almost half of Canadians really want to use their mobile devices to potentially purchase products and services," Caughlin explains. "As online communities mature, brands that cut through the digital noise have fantastic potential to drive rapid growth from this nascent consumer base."