Beyond Local: The Personal Imperative of Social

A few mornings ago, I participated in a brief Skype interview to help promote an upcoming social media conference. While I was a few cups of coffee away from lucid, the interviewer did his part in raising some insightful questions around social business and social media management tools.

Expectedly, 3-5 minutes couldn’t do most of his questions justice.

One question in particular, however, stood out: “Are brands using social media [and related management tools] to fake being ‘local’?”

It’s an interesting proposition. One that I rarely receive from clients I work with or myself consider much.

My initial answer was poor … something nebulous about “connections” and social media transcending geographical boundaries. The answer wasn’t directionally poor (I began to arrive on a point I’ll expand on here), but I never quite arrived on a firm POV.

Early in my career, I was working with a national client on a social campaign for a new product release. Although the release was national, they were focused on driving awareness in a handful of key markets.

The basic strategy we’d created focused on influencer outreach – seeding product and key messaging to category influencers who we’d hope would in turn blog or Tweet about the product.

During planning, we provided the client with a list of 15-20 key influencers; people who could, with a single Tweet or blog post, drive millions of impressions across the Web among our client’s target audience.

We were happy with the list we’d compiled. Then we sat down with the client to review.

“None of these influencers are in our key markets,” they said with disappointment.

We left the meeting without much resolution – there simply weren’t many category influencers in their key markets, and those people that we had found in-market weren’t particularly influential.

After the meeting, I turned to my digital director (and mentor) for guidance. I told him if we targeted the few influencers in the key markets, we’d get no traction.

His response was simple: “It’s called the worldwide web for a reason.  People don’t follow people on Twitter or read blogs based on geography. Targeting influencers based on geography makes no sense.”

Our client wanted us to tackle a traditional PR challenge (generating in-market awareness) with a Web 2.0 solution.

Needless to say, we lost the battle. Recruited “geo-targeted” influencers in key markets. And got expectedly sub-optimal results.

The question I recently received – “are brands using social media to fake being local” – re-surfaced my memory about the campaign and the advice I’d received from my mentor.

How are local and social related? Is it inauthentic for global brands to localize their social media efforts? Moreover, what constitutes authenticity in the age of social media?

Social media can often empower local businesses to reach geo-targeted consumers. Through the same technology, social media empowers global businesses to localize their marketing efforts.

With the click of a “follow” button, someone from Germany can follow the Twitter updates of a company based in Los Angeles, California, simply based on a personal whim or interest. Similarly, a reader in South Africa can follow a blog written by someone in France, and so on.

In the case of global brands, these companies can cater their messages to local audiences through geo-targeted paid media, geo-targeted Facebook updates, or entire market-based Facebook pages.

Are these sorts of efforts inauthentic?

I’m generally nervous when a marketer talks too frequently about “authenticity.” It seems to be a curious choice of adjective when talking about an art that is, in large part, based on persuasion. Too heavily applying the concept of authenticity to social marketing seems, philosophically at least, no less curious.

The larger point, however, is this: geography and social media are concepts at odds. Social media transcends markets, locations. Through the connective power of social platforms, consumers across the world can engage in dialogue with any brand, in any location.

Conversely, those consumers are no less defined or restricted by their geographic location than the brands they’re connecting with. Consumers no longer have to be defined by brands through “markets” or “locations,” but can connect with brands based on their own personal data and preferences.

Social media throws the entire artifice of the concept of “market” into relief, exposes “markets” for what they’ve always been, constructs created by marketers to target consumers in the absence of meaningful personal data or medium to facilitate real 1:1 connections with consumers. Social media provides brands the power (and the data) to connect with their consumers in more personal and meaningful ways. Through social and digital platforms, brands have access to the personal data of their consumers at historic levels.

To create a campaign directed at consumers in a specific location ignores the potential – and, I’d argue, imperative – to market to groups of consumers based on more compelling and deeper shared data points.

Social media removes the “market curtain” and enables us to better under consumers as a collection of diverse individuals better defined (and marketed to) through their idiosyncratic preferences and beliefs than any loose, artificial connections they share with other individuals based on spatial proximity.

The question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether brands are faking “local” by using social media, but whether we should still be employing, talking about, and relying on market-based principles in the age of social media at all.