The art of adverts: How social media is changing the way companies speak to consumers

 

It started with one corporate tweet, launched into social media’s vast ocean, where it barely created a ripple. “Sharing a Camembert with friends? (How generous!),” Président, a cheese manufacturer, said on 30 April. “Get the best flavor by serving at room temperature. #artofcheese”.

By most measures, the promotion left Twitter cold, scoring zero retweets and only two “favourites”, the two ways that consumers can show approval on the site. Yet Camembert was belatedly trending yesterday after it was reported that the anodyne message had taken more than a dozen specialists 45 days to compose.

The Business Insider website had visited the offices of Huge, a digital design and advertising agency in New York of the sort that now also crowds London. As social media have become an easy and affordable means of reaching giant audiences, companies employ experts to run their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Président, a French brand trying to roll into a cheese wasteland (America), depends on Huge to get the word out about Camembert and its optimal serving temperature. But before anyone posted the tweet, it reportedly passed through several layers of project managers, strategists, copywriters and designers in a process that took a month and a half.

The story circulated (on Twitter, naturally) yesterday, drawing unexpected attention to the forgotten, crafted message, albeit in the form of ridicule. One poorly informed cheese eater called Drew Davis said: “Served some cold Camembert to friends 44 days ago. So embarrassed. #artofcheese.”

Nonetheless, as a result of this exposure, the message had last night been retweeted almost 100 times, and favourited almost 500 times (Président’s follower count remained stubbornly low at fewer than 200). But is this really what it takes in this still relatively new age of advertising to spread a message about cheese?

Warren Johnson founded the London-based PR consultancy, W Communications, in 2009, when he says social media played no role in his work. Now they are vital to almost all his accounts (disclaimer: his clients have included this newspaper). “It’s the first time in history that brands have truly been able to speak to consumers in a meaningful way,” he says.

But as the lines between PR and advertising blur online, agencies can still be found catching up. “Traditionally, it was about crafting and fine-tuning a message over a long period and then controlling the environment,” Johnson says. “I’m surprised Président didn’t do focus groups as well. But social media is immediate, a two-way conversation. This feels like a slick, old-media approach to a new-media problem.”

He cites as an example of the new way, a campaign for Addison Lee, the taxi firm. His team scours Twitter for people sharing tweets of woe about train delays or breakdowns, jumping in with offers of free taxis. It’s simple and, Johnson says, very successful. “Of course, a huge amount of planning goes into campaigns, but what engages consumers most is spontaneous and quick-witted,” he says. “That only requires one or two smart people.”

Iain Matthews is the head of planning at Jam, a London agency that deals entirely in new media and counts Samsung and Nestlé among its clients. His team plans and composes messages weeks in advance if they relate to events such as Valentine’s Day, but early meetings are more about earning trust and the freedom to then abandon the old, design-by-committee approach.

“The guys get together in the morning and say, ‘what’s happening, what’s in the news and in the online space’,” he says. “It might be something relevant to one of our brands and we need to come up with an idea and get it out there in a short space of time.”

Back in New York, Huge appeared to have followed this advice when it responded to the Business Insider story using the medium it knows best. Aping the website’s headline (“We Got A Look Inside The 45-Day Planning Process That Goes Into Creating A Single Corporate Tweet”) it tweeted: “We Got A Look Inside The Process Behind Writing Inaccurate Clickbait.” Revenge is a cheese best served cold. µ

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