Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts is among the panellists at Figaro Digital’s Social Media Marketing Conference on 20 July where she’ll be discussing what families want from brands online. She tells us about social responsibility on the social web
Ask any brand what’s important when building relationships with families online and the answer will probably involve engagement, entertainment and sharability, alongside the all important ROI. But what do families want from brands?
That’s the tricky question to be addressed in a panel discussion at Figaro’s Social Media Marketing Conference on 20 July. Dan Heale, Head of Marketing at specialist agency Digital Outlook will be joined by Xbox’s Head of PR Paul Fox, Susanna Scott of British Mummy Bloggers and Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts. They’ll be considering the massive impact of social marketing, and some of the challenges associated with a world where the rules are still being written.
Roberts is co-founder of the enormously successful community site Mumsnet.com – a place where parents can swaps tips and advice, offer support and chat about the highs and lows of family life. Launched in 2000 by former sports journalist Roberts and TV producer Carrie Longton, the site has evolved into one of the most influential communities in the UK. They’ve been courted by Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the Daily Mail called its founders “the most powerful women in Britain” and so significant is their voice that the 2010 general election was dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three major parties tangled over that most coveted constituency: the family.
At the heart of Mumsnet is a vast community of deeply engaged users and posters – around 1.3 million – who trust and rely on the site’s content. Integrity is integral to the site’s success and Mumsnet only work with brands they feel will be genuinely beneficial to the site and its users. In 2010 the site launched its ongoing Let Girls Be Girls campaign which “aims to curb the premature sexualisation of children by asking retailers to commit not to sell products which play upon, emphasise or exploit their sexuality.” Retailers who back the campaign are listed on Mumsnet, as are those who don’t, or haven’t responded. For brands and marketers as well as politicians, what Mumsnet say matters. So how does Roberts feel about kids entering the social space, and the relationships youngsters establish with brands?
“I recognise very strongly that social media is an issue for families,” she says. “I have two 12 year-olds who are desperate to be on Facebook and I’m trying to hang tough, but as most of their friends go on, it becomes quite difficult. The truth is, you have to recognise that kids reach an age when they get connected and we have to educate them, and that’s a responsibility for parents and schools. The rule for Facebook registration is 13, but clearly many kids will use social media before then.”
That’s a point backed up in a report published in April this year by the London School of Economics and the European Union. ‘Social Networking, Age And Privacy’ found that, despite the fact that users need to be 13 or over to open a Facebook account, 34 per cent of under-13s in the UK use the site, and 79 per cent of 13 to 16 year olds have profiles. But, the report notes, kids’ awareness of privacy settings on social networks is less extensive: only fifty-five per cent of 11-12 year olds understand how to change their privacy settings, though this rises to 70 per cent among 13-14 year olds and 78 per cent among 15-16 year olds.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding kids on social media, says Roberts, is that indelible digital footprint. “It’s about doing things online which stay there,” she says. “Whereas we used to make mistakes in our youth and two or three people knew about them, now it’s possible to make a mistake and it’s almost there on your CV. It’s obviously important for parents to get involved, but there are many parents who aren’t au fait with Facebook privacy settings themselves, so I think it’d be great if schools put this on in the early stages of secondary school. You know – we’re not encouraging you to get on social media but if you do, this is how privacy settings work.
“The most important thing Mumsnetters advise is to keep the dialogue open, because it’s not just kids using the computer in the family room. So much happens on mobiles these days, outside the family home. I think it’s very important to have open conversations about what your kids are doing online, because often they’ll stumble across things that they don’t really want to or mean to, and it can effect how they’re feeling and their well-being. If they feel scared of telling their parents because they’ve done something wrong then you’ll never know what they’re up to.”
Given Mumsnet’s approach to brand involvement, how does Roberts feel about marketing strategies which use social media to target kids? What do they tend to get wrong? She cites the notorious Dr Pepper Facebook campaign of 2010 in which users were asked to allow the company’s agency to post embarrassing status updates for a chance to win £1,000.
“This happened to a Mumsnetters’s child and she talked about it on the site,” says Roberts. “They put a really hardcore pornographic reference on her daughter’s status update. She was just 14. I think you’ve got to be responsible in exactly the same way you would be in your marketing offline. One can’t imagine Dr Pepper sending those sorts of messages to 14-year-olds in the print world, so why are they doing it online? There’s more to life than going viral, and if you go viral with the wrong thing, you may rather wish you hadn’t.”
So does Roberts think there are sufficient avenues open to parents uncomfortable with the way their kids are being approached by brands online?
“I think there probably could be easier ways,” she says. “When our members have complained about things, they’ve usually gone via the ASA, writing letters and organising themselves. But a company doesn’t want to upset a group of parents. Could the government or regulators do more? I imagine yes, they could. For example, having a widget on the site, like ours, which says, ‘seen something you don’t like? Click here’. I know that’s been discussed in government circles and would be a very efficient way of doing it – taking the complaints procedure online rather than leaving people to try and work out where to go.”
For brands and marketers, of course, kids represent a significant market which they are desperate to reach and specialist, family-focussed agencies like Digital Outlook provide insight and advice on the best approach. So what does Roberts feels constitutes a responsible yet effective approach to marketing aimed at youngsters in the social sphere?
“Advertisers target adults on social media by being engaging and having a conversation and producing something useful,” she says. “And I would treat kids exactly the same. Personally, if you’re talking about children, I would rather there was no advertising to kids, because it’s not kids who are spending their own money. But once you get to 13 and up you’re talking about teens and they do have sources of income, occasionally, which aren’t their parents’. I think it’s about advertising which is responsible and about showcasing information and products which, in social media terms, are engaging, fun and useful. The rules, I think , are similar to adults – you don’t want to do anything you wouldn’t do offline.”
Which brings us back to the panel’s discussion topic: what do families want from brands online? “We want brands to be honest, and we want honest engagement, so they listen as well as talk,” says Roberts. “The idea of a veneer of social responsibility doesn’t work either – if you’re talking about good stuff you’re doing it has to be genuine social outreach. Authenticity and integrity and the idea that you’re prepared to listen as opposed to just sending a message out – that’s important.”
For kids growing up now, the social web is an integral component of personal relationships – they’ve never known life without it and it’s clearly up to brands and marketers as well as families and educators to make sure youngsters’ lives online get off to a healthy start.