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Turning social media friends into successful marketing campaigns

Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

Can small businesses rely on social media to drive a promotional campaign?

“How many friends have I really got?” sang the Who back in the late ’70s before concluding, somewhat sadly, “I can count ’em on one hand.”

The band’s songwriter, Pete Townshend, who also gave us the immortal line “I hope I die before I get old”, is nearing 75, so clearly that particular (youthful) wish of his didn’t come true.

Regardless, Townshend’s questioning of the reliability of friendships and other supposed close relationships was extremely prescient in terms of social media and using it for self-promotional or marketing purposes.

The twin terms ‘friend’ and ‘like’, once full of so much promise, nowadays through over-use and digital hyperbole cease to have any genuine meaning. Cafés, bookshops and the like beg us to ‘like’ them on Facebook, but the owners would probably be far better off if you actually translated that trite and effortless ‘click’ into something more solid, such as a purchase or – even better – a genuine, heartfelt recommendation to a flesh-and-blood, cashed-up friend.

cartoon women in phones speaking

Digital word of mouth

The real strength of having numerous digital relationships lies not in the fact that they make your website, Twitter account or Facebook page appear cool and popular – it’s in the ability for a small business person to leverage those fragile online connections into a marketing campaign.

According to Garry Horner, creative founder of boutique Sydney agency Matterhorn, ‘shareability’ is the great thing about digital – that and the abundance of information. In the last decade, blogs have taken hold of the power that magazines traditionally used to wield. It’s interesting that one of advertising’s legendary creatives, Dave Trott, who now has his own blog, sees digital as just the modern version of the best advertising tool of all: word of mouth.

Creative ideas that take advantage of friend-to-friend (i.e., third-party) recommendations are highly sought after. For example, if a wine buff sees a sign in a bottle shop advertising “terrific deals on wine”, he may well shrug and assume that it is a load of cheap wines. Yet if a friend or colleague whose opinion he respects mentions the same deal, preferably in a slight whisper, then the motivation to check out the offer is massively enhanced.

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Make it enjoyable

The same psychology operates online. An anonymous email, or even an email from a business name, if it gets through the spam filter, will still never be nearly as powerful as an email from a close mate with “Hey, check this out!” as the subject line, which then has the exact same offer.

As with all such selling tools, creativity is paramount. People will only be motivated to pass your material on if they come out of it looking good because of it. The promotional material must be a reward in its own right – either funny, clever, eye-popping or in some other way noteworthy, so that the friend who receives it enjoys it even before getting to the nitty-gritty of the hard sell.

The advantage of friend-to-friend promotions is that once an idea takes off, it can really take off. This is where the pyramid structure of social media networks is so worthwhile. If person A feels suitably motivated to send a post on to a few close friends, it’s a good bet that persons B, C and D will do the same.

But be warned: if your promotion fails to live up to the hype, the world of social media can be merciless and pass swift judgment, making it that much more difficult next time around. “Won’t get fooled again”, as the Who also sang.

Creating your own ‘friend-to-friend’ campaign


Do's
  1. Know precisely who your target audience is and what in their “tribe” are key motivators.
  2. Grasp the subtleties and nuances of their likes and dislikes, including slang terms and popular phraseology.
  3. Make it relevant, as well as engaging and entertaining. Digital is no different from every other communications channel − it still has to interrupt you in order to communicate with you.
  4. Make the experience worthwhile and hopefully rewarding for all who partake in it.
  5. Make your promotional idea feel as fresh and novel as possible.
  6. People will only send something on if it makes them look good.

Don'ts
  1. People are time poor. Don’t make your promo so complicated that people can’t be bothered.
  2. Don’t attempt to overtly insert your commercial message.

*Originally published November 3rd 2014. Updated on December 4th 2019.

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