Social Media Launch Pad

Going beta isn’t just for the tech industry anymore. In tech, it’s common for an incomplete version to be rolled out months—sometimes years—before the official release. The idea behind going beta is that consumer feedback can improve a product and avoid potential missteps. But in the past two years or so, various marketers outside the segment, including Ford, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Kellogg, have adopted the practice by, in effect, releasing beta versions of their products or at least their marketing campaigns in an effort to solicit customer feedback and build buzz.

Recently, social media has become the launch pad for several products, including:

• Ford’s 2011 Fiesta, which was launched last summer with a social media campaign called the “Fiesta Movement.” A TV campaign for the model didn’t launch until last week—about a year after the social media launch.

• Procter & Gamble held a “Shave Studio” in New York’s Times Square in advance of its Gillette Fusion ProGlide launch. During the four-day event, which took place in April, P&G asked males to try out the new razor—which is pitched as turning “shaving into gliding.” It then posted users’ feedback on a site called Fusion ProGlide hits stores next month, and the ads, by BBDO, began running early this month.

• PepsiCo solicited customer feedback for Mtn Dew as part of its DEWmocracy campaign. In 2008, the brand used its DEWmocracy Web site to ask consumers to vote on a new drink. They eventually chose Voltage. Last year, Mtn Dew repeated the experiment via Facebook. In April, the brand released three new, fan-chosen flavors.

• Kellogg launched FiberPlus Antioxidant Bars with social media outreach in January 2009, but traditional advertising for the line didn’t start until June. There was also a six-month lag before the launch of advertising for its Special K crackers, which initially had relied on blogger outreach.

While a period in which marketers solicit social media feedback is now becoming common, it’s still a radical change for many categories. In autos, for instance, marketers normally “wait until the product is literally in showrooms” and then break the ad campaign, said Ford U.S. marketing communications director Matt VanDyke.

“They’d condense all of the dollars into a very concentrated, three-to-five month [advertising] window, and then they’d let the dealers take over” after that, VanDyke said, referring to the typical way of launching new models. VanDyke said a flaw in that strategy is that “you’re talking to significantly less than 5 percent of your target audience.” In the case of Fiesta 2011, social media was the best way to drive awareness of the vehicle among the right brand targets and then have them create content that was self-proliferating, he said.
Using social media as a beta launch has other advantages besides building buzz. Using analytics tools, marketers can also identify product flaws or potentially overlooked demographics who warm to the product. In some cases, marketers turn to text-mining firms like Clarabridge to parse such data. Sid Banerjee, CEO and founder of Clarabridge, which counts Walmart and United Airlines among its clients, said the company often helps its retail customers gauge the reaction for new products on shelves by monitoring social media discussions. Clarabridge has also worked with an unnamed videogame maker who quickly added support for one of the three major consoles after blog chatter within 24 hours of the product’s release showed consumers were looking for it.

Despite the popularity of social media as a launching pad, though, not everyone believes it will replace traditional test marketing in geographic locations. Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer, is skeptical. “I absolutely believe the kind of feedback people are getting for free from social media is extremely valuable, but could it replace test marketing of a product? That, I’m not so sure about,” she said.

For starters, advertisers have to consider the types of audiences they’re looking to reach. Using Facebook to market a cutting-edge razor to technologically savvy and grooming-obsessed males might be a good idea, but the same approach might not work so well in the case of those pitching dentures, for instance, said Mark Feldman, COO of NetProspex, which publishes a directory of business-to-business sales and marketing contacts. “The most important thing is, you have to look at [your consumer],” he said.

Likewise, while Ford, P&G and PepsiCo have embraced social media to launch products, others, including Frito-Lay and Reckitt Benckiser, say they are on the fence. Regarding social media, Reckitt rep Caroline Hey said the company is still in a “learning mode” right now.