Monday, February 11, 2013

What’s at the core of Apple’s social media strategy?

Get into a discussion on marketing strategy, or attend any meeting with “brand” in the title, and it’s usually only a few nanoseconds before somebody invokes Apple and rattles on about how we need to be more like them and do exactly what they do. You can work for any kind of company, from a biotech start-up to a manufacturer of concrete, and this rule applies: Apple is the gold standard on how to do marketing right and create a winning brand that has a gravitational attraction for customers and a magic ability to mint cash.

Yet, when it comes to social media, Apple is doing exactly the opposite of everyone else.  Lemming like, most companies have leapt head-first into the social world, and most experts agree that having a solid social strategy is critical for building a successful brand. Yet Apple is largely absent from social. So, how come the most successful brand on the planet has been such a contrarian when it comes to social media, and been so successful doing it?

‘Reputation management‘ is often the reason given for an active social program, especially for established brands like Apple, the logic being that reputations are made or lost amidst the babble of customers, prospects and competitors. But the linkage between reputation, brand, and company performance is fluid, with one not clearly being dependent on another. Indeed, there’s plenty of crappy companies that have award-winning social programs  - Kodak comes to mind, or Dell.

Apple’s attitude to social is more likely bound-up with their fetish for control. They control the message and they control the user experience. They close others out and control the supply chain. They operate on a principle that information scarcity will drive anticipation and demand. None of this would argue in favor of an aggressive social program, where control is relinquished and being closed just doesn’t work. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against the success of Apple’s approach, at least under Jobs’ tenure.

This approach wouldn’t work for most companies.  At a practical level, most of us don’t have the discipline to make it work. But more importantly, ignoring social won’t work because, sadly,  none of us actually are Apple.  Until recently, Apple was the most valuable company in the world. They command attention, people actively listen to the slightest rumor from them, the media fawn. You and I need to fight for these things. It’s the difference between playing offense and defense.

But there’s a bigger lesson to be taken from this.

Apple is good at many, many things, among them having a very clearly articulated business strategy that permeates everything they do. Their approach to social is an articulation of this strategy – it just so happens that this means they do very little social at all. Too often, social is seen as an end in itself, and having a social media strategy as something distinct from broader business objectives. At its core, that’s a recipe for failure.