Interactive or Engaged?

(This is a guest post by Valerie Merahn Simon. For more about Valerie, check out her bio at the end of this post.)

I recently came across a press release about a new social media initiative taken by a large restaurant chain. A highly regarded advertising agency was responsible for the successful initiative, which resulted in a growing Twitter following, significant Facebook fan base, and impressive number of YouTube views. The website now offers a wealth of information on everything from nutritional information to in-store specials and promotions, as well as various sweepstakes. There are interactive quizzes and games. It really did appear that the agency was executing a fully integrated communications effort.

Then I read a blog post by John Bernier, a marketing manager for Best Buy, responsible for leading a team of employees in launching Best Buy’s “Twelpforce,” and realized what was missing. Bernier notes that customer’s must take advantage of social media as an “opportunity to listen to the customer to provide them more of what they need, when they need it, where they want it.

Social Media is not simply an opportunity to pass information along and talk AT the customer, it’s an opportunity to engage and learn from your customers, and the marketplace. While the Best Buy website may not offer much in the way of sweepstakes or promotions, it offers many opportunities to engage and learn from customers; forums, the Geek Blog, IdeaX, ratings and reviews, and, of course the Twelpforce, offer customers the opportunity to make the most of Best Buy. And it allows Best Buy to make the most of its customers.

Advertising is an opportunity to create and communicate a message, to craft exciting and interesting ways to get the public to take note of the brand, in a manner in which the company would like it to be perceived. Public Relations is about developing the conversation between and about companies and the public; building relationships with the employees, customers and other targeted groups.

Social media provides a means for the consumer to voice opinions, and I believe the companies that will find the greatest success will understand the difference between interactive and conversational. While I very much agree that there are many lessons PR can learn about social media from advertising (see Dave’s earlier post ) and acknowledge that the ad agency designed campaign noted above certainly offered the client many benefits, the focus was on the restaurant, not the consumer. For a company to be most effective in its use of social media, it must offer customers the chance to take center stage.

Do you see the difference between customer interaction and engagement? If you were a marketing director, would you hire a PR Agency or an Advertising Agency to help develop and implement your social media strategy?

Valerie Merahn Simon serves as a Senior Vice President at BurrellesLuce media monitoring and measurement, and writes a national public relations column for She is also co-founder and host of #PRStudChat, a monthly twitter chat between PR professionals and students moderated by Deirdre Breakenridge. She can be found on Twitter or LinkedIn.

48 Responses toInteractive or Engaged?

  • It is frustrating because so many brands out there don’t understand the importance of social media, or if they do, don’t understand how to use it effectively. It seems to me that many brands just use it as another vehicle for advertising, only using bloggers or social sites to spread their message. Brands should try to understand the importance of opening the door and letting the people in to their business rather than yelling to them from an open window.

  • Two great examples, Valerie! In my view, both PR and advertising are subsets of marketing, and both have a role to play in social media programs. While social media excels at fostering one-to-one interactions, it also works when messaging to many people. The place to start is with understanding business goals and aligning the tactics. For example, tweets can drive views of a new white paper or entries to a contest. Facebook ads are pretty effective for these purposes, too. Bottom line: both PR and advertising skills can help businesses get results in the social media space.

  • The release you mention says it’s a new SM initiative, and perhaps interaction (advertising) is step one on the way to engagement. Give folks some deals, some fun stuff so that they welcome your brand in their personal spaces like FB. Then ask about what they want; listen, respond and engage.

    As for which agency to hire: while I think PR is better suited for SM than advertising it’s the campaigns that are integrated, complementary and work together that have the best chance of hitting on all cylinders.

  • Thanks Cheryl- I do think that there is a tremendous missed opportunity when companies use social media as a mechanism for broadcasting information, rather than participatory conversation. Gail and Davina make some smart points though and I don’t think this should be an either/ or situation. I especially like Gail’s bottom line “both PR and advertising skills can help businesses get results in the social media space.”

  • I’d hire the PR agency IF they could demonstrate that they know how to start conversations.

    In a recent post on my blog Proactive Report titled The Role of PR in New Media I cited this definition of PR:

    “Public Relations is a set of management, supervisory, and technical functions that foster an organization’s ability to strategically listen to, appreciate, and respond to those persons whose mutually beneficial relationships with the organization are necessary if it is to achieve its missions and values.”

    I’m all for listening, discovering needs and responding with great content that sparks conversations and interactions.

    I don’t see it as one or the other – it’s a perfect integration of listening, providing relevant content to meet their needs and then engaging in conversation with those people.

    And I think PR is best equipped to do that.

  • I’d hire whoever was smarter and better to work with. Every good advertising agency I know wants to listen to the customer. Every good PR firm I know wants to carefully shape a durable, believable message. I hope it doesn’t seem like a dodge of the question to say that the category of agency matters less in this social media than in the mindset of the particular players.

    I’d also add that the first listening that matter is even more basic: does the customer want to have a conversation with the brand? I absolutely love Apple, Subaru, Brooks Brothers, Timberland. I have no desire to talk with them. Yet there are other brands I might meaningfully converse with.

  • “Social Media is not simply an opportunity to pass information along and talk AT the customer, it’s an opportunity to engage and learn from your customers, and the marketplace.”

    And there’s the key — just because you’re using a social media platform does not mean you’re engaging in social media. It’s all a matter of how we use the tools at our disposal, not that we use them just because they’re there.

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