Marketing and the domestication of social media

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The development of computer-based communication produced a strong surge of interest in the potential of word-of-mouth marketing (Gladwell, 2000; Keller and Berry, 2003; Sernovitz, 2006). Today, online word-of-mouth marketing encompasses a plurality of practices, from media advertising to public relations and customer relationship management. Most of these marketing practicestakeplaceon ‘web2.0’ or ‘social media’ websites such as blogs,content sharing sites(video,photo), or social network services. Thesewebsitesprovideusers withfeatures that allow them toorganize and display theirsocial relations(boyd and Ellison, 2007).Moreover, thesesitesinclude features(such as embedding, liking and sharing content) that facilitate the social spreadingofmedia material (applications, games,links, videos, etc.). Thus,social mediamakes the social activity of internet users more visible,measurable,and possiblymanipulable.

A number of authors have described the development of a “viral culture” associated with social media websites like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter (Wasik, 2009; Berger, 2013; Jenkins et al., 2013). Brands are very much part of this phenomenon: commercials appear regularly in the rankings of the most viewed and shared online videos. For example, the “Evian Roller Babies” video ad has gathered more than 86 million views on YouTube since it went online in July 2009. From a slightly different perspective, Starbucks Coffee had over 35 million “likes” on Facebook and more than 8 million “followers” on Twitter as of June 2015. These exceptional figures are often cited in the trade press as examples of the potential of web 2.0 for marketing, and seem to justify the use of the epidemiological metaphor.

Websites promote the circulation of brands and products by offering users access to apparently ‘free’ content that is in fact mainly funded by revenue drawn from advertising and marketing (Beuscart, Mellet, 2008). Conversely, advertisers are attracted by the growing audience of these sites and the opportunity to place their brands and products at the very center of online conversations. However, this incentive does not eliminate the uncertainties inherent in an emerging and unstabilized field of activity. This raises the question of how marketing works to ‘domesticate’ social media.

In 2008 and 2009, when the market for social media marketing services was still in its experimental phase, companies attempted to use social media in a variety of ways that were not always clearly thought out. These ranged from using it for brand awareness purposes to direct response advertising, public relations and customer relationship management. These companies viewed social network sites as a medium of communication that could not be ignored (due to the large audiences, or because their competitors were there), but did not fully understand how the various functionalities of these sites could help brands achieve their marketing objectives. This chapter focuses on a set of actors who played a crucial role in the domestication of social media by marketing. Most of them are start-ups that were created in the 2000s. I call them social media marketing (SMM) agencies, since the label has gained ground among professionals. The purpose of this contribution is to examine the ‘marketization’ activities (Callon, 1998; Araujo & al., 2010) carried out by SMM agencies: what are their products, and who are their customers and competitors? How do they market their products? How do they equip and implement their work (advertising formats, monitoring and evaluation measurement instruments)? The chapter relies on a qualitative empirical material consisting of 12 interviews conducted with SMM agency managers (France; June–Oct. 2010) and 15 interviews conducted with advertisers (France; June–July 2009).

SMM agencies share both the same playground, i.e., social media, and a concern for word-of-mouth. Their raw material is the “social activity” of internet users—namely the discussions, expressions, and recommendations that take place on social media. SMM agencies are not interested in the consumer as described in standard economic theory—namely as an isolated and self-sufficient individual; on the contrary, they consider her as a fundamentally social and talkative being. Agencies seek to market this social activity to advertisers either by indexing it or by provoking it. However, marketization requires a certain degree of standardization, including the definition of products and measurement tools with precise and stable contours, in order to comply with the usual qualifications of the advertising market and to achieve a significant volume of business. In other words, these agencies must transform a raw and multifaceted input—the social activities of internet users—into one output which takes the form of relatively standardized communication actions. This work requires them to clarify what the nature of this social substrate is and how it operates. My hypothesis is that the investments made by SMM agencies equip and manipulate representations of the consumer as “homo sociologicus”, with these representations themselves (sometimes explicitly) deriving from social theories. These representations concern the nature of social relationships; they take the form of ontologies, that is to say simplified, reductive and somehow exclusive conceptions of the link established between individuals in online social worlds. These figures of social relationships allow professionals to filter among the heterogeneous and un-coordinated expressions of internet users, to give them relief and meaning, and in the end to act on them.

Analysis shows that the emerging market for SMM services is organized around three specialties: contagion, influence and community. Each specialty stems from a specific feature of social relation, and is translated into a “marketing promise” and embodied in products and measuring instruments. Contagion specialists rely on personal relations networks to provoke the fast and large-scale spreading of content such as viral videos or game applications. They belong to the segment of advertising, whose purpose is to generate product and brand awareness. These specialists promise advertisers that they will maximize visibility while minimizing paid advertising because the spreading of messages is outsourced to internet users. Influence specialists concentrate their efforts on the identification and targeting of individuals who exercise an influence on their circle of acquaintances. The support of this figure of social relationships leads them towards a marketing practice which is close to the domain of public relations. Specialists of the community are experts in the management of online communities. This specialty consists essentially nowadays in running brands’ fan pages on Facebook. In what follows, this chapter, examines the roles of each of these major specializations in this still emerging industry in turn.

[2017] Mellet K., «Marketing and the Domestication of Social Media» in CochoyF., DevilleJ., McFall L., (ed.), Markets and the Arts of Attachment,, New York, Routledge, p.55-71. [présentation de l’ouvrage / pre-print version]

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