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From the moment we wake up, brands bombard us with attempts to get our attention.  These marketers gear their advertisements and logos towards making our lives easier and connected.  However, in our internet-savvy world, we are beginning to demand more from our brands.  We want them to make us feel alive.  Make us fall in love.  Give us a reason to choose.  Gain our trust.

One of the most fascinating aspects about successful brands is their new status as “party throwers.”  Brand roles have dramatically changed from being advocates to entering an environment where they are “ambassadors, they’re party throwers,” according to Jennifer Aaker, Stanford Graduate School of Business Marketing Professor and co-author of The Dragonfly Effect.  These new ambassadors invite us into a community of shared interests, and let the party develop from there.

In an attempt to foster engagement, I invited leading marketing experts to weigh in on the question, “What is a social brand?” Here are their essential insights on what businesses should keep in mind:

 Trusting Brands

In a recent Edelman Trust Barometer 2012 survey, social platforms such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook have seen an upsurge in credibility over the past year.  The survey found that the number of times something is seen repeated on Twitter, Facebook or blogs determines its credibility in people’s minds.

So what key unlocks our hearts and minds?

Bill Strawderman, Jr.  (@marketingbard) Executive Director, Online B2B Marketing at AT&T:

“To me a social brand is one that understands the shifting nature of influence and trust, prepares culturally and operationally to embrace interpersonal connections, and intelligently embeds engagement in experiences and touch-points that enhance the value of the brand to its stakeholders.”

Dwight Griesman, (@dgriesman) CMO at Forrester Research:

“A social brand engages in listening and conversation with its customers and potential customers on topics of interest to those communities in order to build trust and credibility that will further its business objectives.”

We’re Not Targets – We’re Audiences

Now, it’s more than technology that ultimately creates engaged relationships. Successful social bands demonstrate a genuine interest in their audience and develop passionate commonalities and meaningful ties.  In today’s networked world, brands need to stop yelling at us.  After all, we’re not targets; we’re audiences.

Catharine Findiesen Hays, Managing Director (@catharinehaysThe Wharton Future of Advertising Program:

“Brands have always been ‘social’ as consumers saw ads, selected, used, became loyal and maybe even recommended the brand to others.  But as offline word of mouth has been supercharged and expedited with digital media, the real question now is whether brands are sociable”.  Sociable brands aren’t only about hosting fabulous gatherings of their own (owned media), but importantly about finding continuously new and interesting ways to bring value as social currency to their audience, increasing the likelihood that they will invited to the best conversations, online and off.”

Michael Ancevic (@mancevic) Senior Vice President – Creative Director at Mullen:

“A social brand is one that has embraced and made the transition from being a one-way message announcer to being engaged as a two-way communicator with its customers and fans.  A brand that understands this engagement and how to do it will thrive.  It’s really about handing some of the control of the brand over to those who love it, want to participate with it and want to share in it.  It’s also a brand that makes its content liquid, linked and likable to make that sharing even easier.”

Steve Olenski (@steveolenski), freelance copywriter/blogger/brand strategist:

“A social brand is one that realizes that they no longer speak to consumers but rather with them. A social brand understands that the key to succeed lies with engagement… real, true engagement. They know that consumers are voicing their opinions from sea to shining social sea and they know they better first, listen, then engage. And stay engaged… else runs the risk of their once-loyal brand ambassadors leaving for greener, more-engaging pastures.”

 Pursuit of Consumers’ & Employees’ Happiness

Companies, both large and small, must become social businesses to create brands that entice us to choose them.  However, if a company cannot communicate well internally, it will not be able to communicate its brands effectively to the public.  In this new era of collaboration, social businesses are transforming and disrupting business as usual, while bringing brands closer to customers.

Nancy Cook of Fast Company informs us that companies are trying to figure out how to use happiness to increase their employees’ productivity and “woo” customers.  In her articles she profiles Jennifer Aaker, who says, “The idea of brands enabling happiness and providing greater meaning in the world is powerful.  People have an aversion to anything that feels overly manufactured.”

Scott Goodson (@scottfrog), author and Founder and Chairman of StrawberryFrog:

“A social brand is one that understands the new and very direct relationship it can now enjoy with its customers.  It also appreciates the power people have to start their own MASS movements, spark change and transform the world. Today’s digital revolution means brands can now build valuable relationships with consumers.”

Kevin Randall, (@kevinbrandall brands himself simply “All-Brand guy” at Fast Company and he is the Director, Brand Strategy & Research at Moveo Integrated Branding:

“B2B businesses are inherently social brands yet few exploit this great potential.

To a greater degree than consumer brands, B2B enterprises are selling people, know-how, culture, process, relationship, trust — in essence, a social offering.

And there is no better vehicle for aligning and crystalizing this offering than brand.  A social brand effectively executes on the 4 L’s: It LEADS — the brand is guided by a higher purpose in society and thinks ahead of the category; It LOVES and is loved — the brand’s appeal is emotionally-driven, employees and customers are passionate advocates; it LIVES — the brand is operationalized across the enterprise; and it LISTENS — the brand engages and learns from customers as well as employees.

 Engagement is Not a Campaign

While sharing content is the foundation of successful social brands, most marketers struggle to understand the complexity of increasingly multifaceted social network channels. Here are some words from the wise on this all too familiar challenge:

Brian Solis, author of Engage and The End of Business as Usual

Engagement is not a campaign, it’s a continuum where technology is merely an enabler for a greater vision, mission and purpose. When you engage, you will build an authoritative social network that increases your visibility, relevance, influence and profitability … Engage or die!”

Tim Leake (@Tim_Leake) Global Partnership Director, Hyper Island:

“A social brand is a brand that acts like a (good) person, not a soulless corporation. A social brand is honest, helpful, transparent and friendly – but most importantly, a good listener. If a brand isn’t these things, it’s by definition being anti-social.”

 Does “Liking” a Brand Mean You’re Loyal?

According to eMarketer, data from the CMO Council reveals that “Limited consumer engagement with brands on Facebook may be a disconnect between the reasons why consumers actually ‘Like’ a brand and the reasons brands think consumers are ‘liking’ their page.”  According to eMarketer, 67% of consumers are looking for exclusive offers when they click on the “Like” button. So how do brands respond?

David Aaker (@davidaaker), Vice Chairman at Prophet, author of Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant and blogger at Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.

“To me a social brand is one that has a community that is engaged either around the offering and its application or around an area that matches the customers activities, values, opinions or lifestyle.”

Simply stated, creating relevant brands is no longer an option.  Recognizing how important brand sociability is and will be, companies need to understand what makes a brand social.  They need to begin with their own business strategies, goals and objectives, and a clear understanding of their value set.

This post was originally published on AT&T’s Networking Exchange Blog.

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