Is the social-media explosion a "big bang" that's creating a whole new brand-communications paradigm, or is it part of an ongoing evolution whereby focused brand-building principles are not only still relevant but also more important than ever?

The More Things Change...

Social media is, indeed, changing the ways through which brands can be built and expressed—and how they connect with, and influence, key constituencies.

But successful brands have always been—and will remain—the ones that deliver on their promise, and the ones that are understood and valued by their constituents, are differentiated in the competitive landscape, and are enthusiastically recommended by engaged brand advocates. No sea change there.

What's evolving is the nature of brand discourse—from predominately one-way, outbound organization-to-constituent monologues to two- and three-way conversations among your organization and constituents, the latter often talking to one another beyond your hearing. That has significant implications around how your advocates proselytize, where you put your brand-communication resources, and how you build trust and relationships.

Put simply, social media is transforming the Web into a predominately social experience. The distinct profiles we manage across the social-media sphere—via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and the like—are becoming more portable, meaning "buyers" of all stripes can carry them around whether they're searching for a new stereo, looking for something to do on a Friday night, evaluating whether to invest their philanthropic dollars with you, or checking out graduate schools.

Portable identities represent a paradigm shift of power, because people will increasingly be able to tap in to trusted networks wherever and whenever they "shop."

In other words, successful brands of the future will still require engaged corps of enthusiastic brand advocates. But in addition to sporting "portable billboards," such as a logo on a shirt or shopping bag—and beyond telling a friend over a drink how great a product or experience is—brand advocates will increasingly share their opinions during key moments of evaluation and decision.

Those advocates (or detractors) will own your brand. But, then again, you never owned your brand. You're just the steward, marshaling an ever-evolving set of tools to influence how your audience thinks, feels, and, ultimately, behaves. And the better job you do stewarding, the more your constituents will take ownership to heart.

So although the means are evolving—the tools available and how your advocates spread the word (or not)—the need for a focused, strategic approach to brand-building hasn't changed all that much.

A Brand-focused Approach to Social Media

As a brand steward, you manage a mix of components that can be controlled and also now have the task of influencing what you can't control.

You have control over what you can "own"—your model, mission, core message, name, logo, tagline. And you have control over those disciplines that come together in the communications you produce—approaches to language, color, type, imagery, and design.

But you do not have control, but should certainly seek to influence, how constituents talk, text, and share their thoughts about you with one another—through an increasing array of channels.

Understanding that you can control only a portion of the communications that together make up how your brand is understood makes it even more important for you to exercise the control you can have—to provide direction and context for that which you can't.

Vigorously ignore those who preach that "losing control" is "going with the flow." Instead, consider the following five steps to help you take control and thereby increase influence.

1. Prepare your open book

The shift in power in the form of constituent-driven social media means that you must assume people will come to know everything about you—good and bad—even if you haven't told them a thing. And they'll know it almost instantly, from sources they trust. What to do?

Don't fake it, be who you are. If you try otherwise, you'll likely be found out. If there's a problem, fix it. And if it's merely a perception problem, practice a bit of Brand Judo and turn that perceived weakness into strength! There's no place to hide, so don't bother trying. Remember that the context you provide is important; otherwise, a negative story is the story.

2. Solidify your main message

Ultimately, people are going to make up their own minds about your brand and then post a comment or blog as they see fit. And yes, it's those messages that really matter. But that doesn't mean that you've completely "lost control" and shouldn't seek to influence how people think, talk, and type.

What's the one message you want people to have in their heads? It needs to be simple, memorable, and repeatable—and you need to communicate it consistently. It needs to be "indestructible" so it can hold up as it's promulgated across the fragmented social-media sphere, and you need to be able to back it up.

But pushing it out isn't enough. What stories and experiences do you need to get out there to encourage people to say it for you—and to think and act in your favor in the moments that matter most?

You can't control exactly what gets said and passed around, but you can engineer the context from which favorable messages arise. And those favorable messages help brands do what they do best: create pull; foster an emotional connection; and insulate against negative, rogue perceptions.

3. Visualize success

As the proliferation of communication modalities continues, a robust, flexible, visual brand system is more important than ever.

Visual consistency counts, and not just for the sake of consistency. It helps you get credit for all you do, builds equity in the right places, and ensures that your communications add up to a recognizable whole—one a lot greater than the sum of the parts.

It helps you to maximize what you can control: You can't control someone else's blog, but you can connect your blog to your website, to your Twitter account, to your e-newsletter, and, yes, to brochures and publications printed on reconstituted trees.

Like your main message, your visual image also has to be portable and memorable, because your "outside" communicators all have the ability to make up their own images.

Brand diffusion is a continuing threat. If your blog, Twitter page, and website aren't visually reinforcing the same set of values—and are out of sync with your print communications—you will be the one increasing your own brand diffusion!

Invest in a visual and verbal brand system that is scaled to your organization. Apply it with discipline wherever you can.

4. Power to your people

Branding has always been more than just the domain of people with marketing or development on their business cards; everyone in an organization is engaged in promulgating its brand, whether or not they realize it. Social media has only amplified the opportunity beyond your walls—and the risk.

So equip your people to communicate appropriately on your behalf. Empower leadership and people in key, public-facing positions to connect directly with constituents through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook—and be sure to develop the right message framework so conversations advance what you want advanced and have the needed context.

And although you can't control how employees are communicating about your organization on their personal sites, you might provide examples for how they can best represent the organization online. It's a fine line: You can't be Big Brother, but you can remind employees that brand success is their success and that they have a role.

5. Matter where it matters to be

Communications have long been about helping organizations move people "closer" to them. Social media can help achieve that goal by providing the means for an organization itself to move closer to its constituents. Either way, or both, you decrease the distance between you and your constituents. But it isn't as simple as just launching organizational profiles across the usual suspects of the social-media sphere.

Social media is about providing opportunities for connections that matter. People expect to be able to hone in on what they want to connect with; therefore, a monolithic presence may not be the best route.

For example, a university that is active in social media could maintain outposts for prospective students, alumni, faculty, and more—each with specific content for a specific audience in service of a desired transaction (enrollment, philanthropic giving, advancing competitive positioning, etc.).

A monolithic, broadcast-type, university presence can't foster this type of "narrowcast" engagement. Be where your constituents are with content that matters to them—and to them alone. Relevance has never been more relevant.

Social media is not a place to try to be all things to all people, all at once. Organizations should audit their departments, programs, products, and personalities to identify opportunities where specific connections and outcomes can happen.

Create a social-media communications architecture that gives people the opportunity to connect to specific products and programs, and share with like-minded individuals.

Deliver content that equips brand advocates and drives specific desired outcomes. If you don't know with whom you're trying to connect and what the goal of a particular social-media outpost is, you may just be adding to the noise.

...The More They Stay the Same

Although much is evolving around brand-building using social media, the skills and experiences you have are transferable and relevant, and they will serve you well going forward.

Social-media tools will continue to evolve, and new ones will come and go. Rather than getting distracted by the next new shiny object, apply focused brand-building principles shaped to those new opportunities: Control what you can and seek to influence what's beyond your grasp, be true to your brand, distill your core message, develop and deploy a compelling and consistent visual tone, engage and empower your people, encourage dialogue, and be relevant.

In the end, social media is a conversation about your brand. You can participate in it and help shape it, but mostly you need something compelling to say—something someone is wanting to hear.

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Brandon Walsh is manager of strategy at Sametz Blackstone Associates (, a Boston-based brand-focused communications firm that integrates strategy, design, and technology to help evolving organizations navigate change. Reach him via, 617-266-8577, and @calmstock.