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People are silhouetted with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo. (DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
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Executive Pulse

Remember Friendster? What businesses should concentrate on in the social media space Add to ...

Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

From customer engagement to product sales and connecting with new audiences, the continued presence of social media can be a boon to Canadian businesses if used smartly. However, it can also have its fair share of drawbacks, from leaked information to damaged reputations. Faten Alshazly, chief creative officer and principal of the Halifax-based marketing and communications agency WeUsThem Inc., and Ariel Garten, the founder and chief executive officer of InteraXon Inc., the Toronto-based tech company that created a brain-activity-sensing headband called Muse, offer their thoughts on the subject.

For more tips on dealing with the downsides, see Five social media tips for businesses.

Given the amount of Internet time users devote to social media, how much time and effort should businesses commit to working on their social media message?

Faten Alshazly: Social media engagement, not necessarily messaging, is key to the success of any business. Regardless of the size of the business, consumers want to feel connected to their brands and the only way to do this is to try and reduce the artificial distance that exists between a consumer and a brand. Consider a brand’s Twitter or Facebook account responding to a consumer’s message or interacting with a consumer and further consider the brand association and affinity that creates. How much a business should devote to it is really up to how they value their engagement on social media. We see a lot of time being spent on the networks that are not driving bottom-line growth as they are unidirectional messages, rather than engaging dialogue that one could have with their current and potential future consumer base.

Ariel Garten: What makes social media important to us at Muse is that we are breaking new ground in the space of neuroscience and technology. Because we are developing a new category, it is important for us to share stories that capture the emotions of what we are trying to achieve, as most people likely don’t have a concept of what a brain-sensing headband is. The stories we share reflect on the way meditation changes lives from not only the science but also the lifestyle perspective. We do extensive usability testing to learn how customers comprehend our product and what resonates with them. In addition, social media allows us to connect one-on-one with our customers. It’s not just about broadcasting messages, it’s about interacting with them on a more intimate level.

If you have X number of followers on Facebook or Twitter, does that convert to business success? What kinds of metrics should businesses be looking at?

FA: The number of followers on any social network does not necessarily convert to business success, but it does give you a mechanism to spread knowledge about your business through that followership and hopefully through their networks if they do share some of that information. The metrics that businesses should be looking at is direct engagement that is tied to specific campaigns that are geared toward driving sales. There is no direct tie between activities on social media and bottom-line sales.

AG: I don’t consider social media to be a sales channel. People don’t follow us to be sold product. They follow us because they want to be engaged with interesting stories that pertain to natural health, mindfulness and technology.

Does it really provide a competitive advantage for Canadian businesses, or is it just a case of everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we? What kind of customer insights can be gained via the use of social media?

AG: “Doing it” is not really an advantage for any business in my opinion. It’s about providing value. Each business will use social media in different ways and the social media channel has its advantages and disadvantages. Some social media strategies rely on selling product and others act as a customer service and retention vehicle. For Interaxon, it’s about building emotional engagement with our customers.

FA: As a Canadian business in a global marketplace it is the single most accessible and cheapest way to market to an international audience. At WeUsThem, we do a lot of business in the international marketplace and what we have found is that we are found organically or through referral more often than not from the digital platforms. Social media is moving toward a place where consumers can seek you out through social reputation gained from their own network that is far greater than a traditional advertisement that is both impersonal and unknown to a new consumer.

Is it possible that social media usage will peak, or there will be social media fatigue?

AG: Sure it’s possible. But another channel will be around the corner. Remember Friendster? Of course, everyone remembers Myspace. Anywhere you can build a relationship with an audience is social media. Channels like Facebook may fade but others like Snapchat are around the corner. Social media can come in many shapes and sizes; it’s all about telling a great story and connecting with your audience.

FA: There is social media fatigue now. Consumers may have been excited about trying different networks in the past, but without a large base of users, consumers are sticking to the traditional networks, unless there is a niche being created by each of the platforms. Consumers are remaining steady on their platforms of comfort, be it Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn or Pinterest, but there are those who are exploring Snapchat, Periscope, etc., for the niche demographic they are targeted to. With advertising dollars being spent heavily on these platforms, not to mention all the cat pictures and videos, users are getting tired of the check-ins and updates that they are being presented with and there are consumers going through information overload continually. I would suggest that there are going to be specific networks that users will rely on for their day-to-day interactions and for specialized conversations will head to niche networks that facilitate those; think Behance for the creative community, young adults for Snapchat, etc.

How can companies prepare for not-yet-invented social media technologies?

FA: The preparation needs to be in the knowledge they need to acquire as new technologies emerge and if critical mass is being built, that should be attended to on this new platform. If not, investing further in uncharted territories may be a fruitless effort.

AG: I think it’s about having the right people in place, who have the finger on the pulse of the latest trends in social and digital. You may not want to jump on a trend right away because you really want to understand the community that lives there and if it’s the right fit for the brand. Then again, we’ve seen situations where brands have taken a risk on a platform as an early adopter and have been able to entrench themselves on the platform with huge benefits, amassing an audience quickly and driving huge engagement numbers. One such example was Taco Bell on Snapchat. It decided very early on that it was going to “own” Snapchat, invested in the platform wholeheartedly with a strong strategy and great content and is now one of the leaders on that channel in terms of best practices and engagement.

What are some downsides for businesses using social media, such as hacking, trolling, information leaks or reputation issues?

AG: We haven’t had any of these issues at Muse. Our brand image is a positive one. There are other sectors that I am sure face irate customers on a daily basis. The stories and dialogue we have on social media are meant to be conversational and light. We are building a reputation on social media and that is a big focus.

FA: There are a few downsides to watch out for, such as negative feedback, which requires a respectful and potentially offline response. Hacking is another potential problem, which requires protection such as updated passwords and transparency with customers.

Responses have been edited and condensed.

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Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

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