The month of March belonged to Meerkat. The app, which lets users send live-streaming video over Twitter, became a cause célèbre in the tech world on March 1, when TechCrunch ran a star-making feature.
It took only few days for brands to jump on board. By the time SXSW Interactive rolled around on March 13, Starbucks, J.C. Penney, and Red Bull had already launched programs on Meerkat. Even though the efforts drew very small audiences–210 people tuned in for Starbucks’s not-so-enthralling livecast of coffee roasting–brands fearing they might be left behind might sensibly ask if they needed a “Meerkat strategy.”
With well south of 1 million users at this writing and a robust new competitor named Periscope (more on that later), most can probably take their time. Or not. Historically, many brands that colonized new technologies and formats have benefitted from the association by solidifying their image as an innovator with its finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist.
On the other hand, with the proliferation of new formats these days, marketers risk spreading themselves too thin and looking like they’re trying too hard if don’t show some restraint. After all, does it really help your brand to be on Yo?
“To some extent there is pressure on all brands to find the next cool thing and ask, ‘How can I use it to communicate to my users?’” said Allen Adamson, chairman of the North America region for Landor Associates, in an interview with CMO.com. “I think a lot of brands jumped on social media and didn’t understand what was involved, that they had to jump in with both feet and do it professionally, not just say, ‘Look at me, I’m cool. I’m trying it out, too.’”
Most of the time, no one remembers or cares which brand got there first. For instance, Bulova, the watch brand, is credited with running the world’s first TV ad, in 1941, but chances are if you’re a Baby Boomer you saw more Timex commercials than Bulova TV spots. The brand’s innovator halo also obviously hasn’t lasted through the age of the Apple Watch.
That’s not always true, though. Digital formats often offer a vehicle in which the medium enhances the message. A good example is Instagram. The photo-sharing app had a swift rise to prominence in October 2010, when it racked up 100,000 users in a week. In those comparatively innocent times, it took more than a month for Instagram to get its first brand, National Geographic. Within a few months, PepsiCo’s Brisk Iced Tea and Kate Spade had started Instagram accounts and demonstrated a utility for brand messages that may have eluded others.
For Brisk, the Instagram tie-in was part of a marketing push in 2010 that included a product expansion and discounting. Thanks to a clever promotion at 2011’s SXSW that let consumers Instagram a photo of themselves and possibly appear on a can, the brand managed to capture the attention of target male Millennial digital influencers at the event without paying a dime to Instagram. In 2012, Brisk became a billion-dollar brand.
Brisk has also worked with Tumblr, Foursquare, and Stickybits, among others. “We’re definitely always looking to explore new partnerships,” said Kathy Kennedy, director of marketing for Brisk, in an interview with CMO.com. “We’re always trying to see what sticks with our consumers.”
Other brands have pulled off similar maneuvers. Nike claimed perhaps the first branded viral video ever in October 2005, when someone placed a video of soccer star Ronaldo on the then-fledgling YouTube. Like TV, though, YouTube is the sort of medium that became so huge so fast that there’s little first-mover advantage. The same could be said of Facebook and Twitter.
With more niche forms of social media, it’s a different story. Take Snapchat. When the app began gathering critical mass in early 2013, brands steered clear, frightened by reports that teens were using it for sexting. After New York frozen yogurt chain 16 Handles launched what may have been the first Snapchat-branded promotion that January, and Snapchat continued to grow, national brands took notice.
Most notably, Taco Bell joined Snapchat in May 2003 and used the app’s dissolve-in-10-seconds feature to tease the relaunch of its Beefy Crunch Burrito. Over time, Taco Bell became adept at Snapchat, cultivating a Gen Y following with a mix of short-form movies and photos overlaid with snarky comments.
For Taco Bell, embracing Snapchat made the brand look like it understood its Millennial customers better than rivals such as McDonald’s, which joined Snapchat in February 2014.
“That’s something that Taco Bell relishes,” said Jackie Dulen Rodriguez, senior manager at Technomic, a fast-food consultancy, “anytime they can position themselves as a lot hipper and a lot more in touch with that younger consumer.” Rodriguez said that in addition to being the first on the platform, Taco Bell also saw its branding potential, which had eluded others.
“At least when they first launched, the idea was that it was so ephemeral that you blink and you miss it–and that is not necessarily what traditional advertising wants,” she told CMO.com. “But Taco Bell is very savvy in understanding these new media and, especially from a social media standpoint, how it positions the brand.”
Taco Bell’s use of Snapchat was one reason the brand was named Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year in 2013.
Vine, the 6-second video format Twitter introduced in January 2013, was another puzzle for many brands. One of the few to see its potential early on was hardware chain Lowe’s, which used Vines to offer home-improvement tips.
The brand’s “Fix in 6” Vines demonstrated that you can transmit a lot of information in that short time. One Vine showed how to use a hair dryer to peel off a stubborn sticker. Another advocated using shoe organizers to store cleaning products.
For Lowe’s, the effort got the brand in front of younger users and made them consider it in a new way. With more than 10 million loops, Lowe’s is still one of the most popular brands on Vine in 2015.
What’s Right For You
Despite those success stories, not everyone prospers by embracing new formats. The problem these days is with so many new media vehicles–and new ones are appearing all the time–deciding which to use can be a headache. So is maintaining your presence.
That’s why picking the right platform is a tough decision. Brands often lean on their ad agencies to help figure it out. BBDO, for instance, is constantly on the lookout for new platforms and checks them out thoroughly them before advocating that brands try them.
“We recommend that people like Lowe's to join a new platform if it is right for them or if it really helps their brand message,” said Alex Marsh, BBDO’s director-social media, in an interview with CMO.com. “Whatever the brand equity of a new platform is, if that matches up well with the brand equity of the client, then I think we'd recommend that.”
Crispin Porter Bogusky also helps guide its partner brands. “Agencies pursue new platforms because we're tasked with inventing new media, and these platforms are territories for that,” said Ivan Perez-Armendariz, EVP/chief digital officer at CP+B. “For brands, the safe approach is to understand the demographics and behaviors of the platform before jumping in. But aggressive brands that anticipate and allocate experimentation budgets to move quickly lead the way in telling stories on new media.”
Speaking of aggressive, perhaps the most consummate early adopter brands are Starbucks and Red Bull. The former joined Twitter in November 2006, just a few months after it launched. Since then it has been early on Instagram, Vine and Yo–the app that initially had one function--to text the word “Yo” to followers. (Now you can add links as well.) Red Bull, meanwhile, posted its first video on YouTube in 2006 and worked with Facebook in 2007. This past month it joined Meerkat and Periscope.
That’s right, Periscope. To illustrate how quickly these new platforms emerge, by the end of March, Meerkat was being eclipsed by Periscope, which offered similar functionality, but had the virtue of being owned and endorsed by Twitter.
“We already see Meerkat dying down, which is really too bad because they had such a good start,” said Carmen Sutter, product manager of social at Adobe (CMO.com’s parent company.) “For brands, I think it makes sense to have an account with both. At the very least, brands should at least claim their accounts on Periscope, but don’t just jump in with streams that are not relevant.”
What is relevant? Sutter said celebrity endorsements coupled with live events (think an endorser celeb on the red carpet at the Academy Awards or a football player during the Super Bowl) would make sense. So would seeing a product used for the first time or live-streaming products shipping for the first time.
However, if you market insurance or gasoline, that may not make as much sense. That’s why Sutter is careful to advise that brands shouldn’t feel compelled to be on Periscope or the next big platform–hello Apple Watch!–unless it makes sense for them.
“Just because there’s a new social network that’s all the buzz doesn’t mean you have to be there right away,” she said. “The brand needs to know if the audience is engaging with that network and what that audience is looking for.”
Are you sure you know where your audience is hanging out online? This 2014 humorous ad from Adobe makes a serious point.
See what the Twitterverse is saying about social media: