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.


Anonymous said...

Hello Ian! I believe there is an important detail about Apple that you might have omitted in analyzing their approach to social media.

That detail is, there were no social media as we know them today when Apple were defining and shaping their PR strategy. There were bulletin boards, but that's about it. As we both know, bulletin boards and newsgroups were mostly used and visited by techno-geeks at that time, who were willing and capable of spending hours going through the endless "PC vs Mac" stuff time and time again.

That wasn't the target audience for Apple's PR strategy, then. And so their message to customers, both existing and potential, had to be made using other means - such as the regular Apple Conference and similar in-person events. It may seem like a paradox, but it were exactly those asocial techno-geeks who were following these social meetings most closely, often visiting them in person just to be able to say "I was there".

And it's been this personal approach that finally won the audience for Apple. That, and their successful facade of being "one of us". (Nobody can certainly say that Bill Gates is "one of us", which is the most disctinctive differentiation from their competitor). This was the winning strategy as far as I can see it, and naturally it did allow Apple to keep tight control over information.

Funny thing is, this tight control actually gives Apple the means to control their public image and seize the reins of reputation management instead of relying on bloggers. Reputation management is a difficult discipline to get right, especially since it's so easy to publish online these days. Just one blogger among thousands can damage your reputation by publishing a negative fad, and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to stop that fad from turning into a meme.

That said, I believe we're in agreement that social media are a great tool, but they need to be approached carefully because getting too deep into them often means relinquishing control over one's own reputation.

Ian Bruce said...

Jan, great to hear from you!

Yes, in Apple's early days their PR strategy couldn't have leveraged social media, but I'm still surprised they did adopt it later. In any event, it certainly hasn't hurt them.

And yes, I think their desire to control the conversation is at the heart of their approach.