It’s interesting and mildly ironic that the biggest buzz coming out of the recent ‘Social Media for Brand Building‘ conference hosted in London is Sony’s acknowledgement that it has netted over a £1M Vaio sales in a proof-of-concept test of using social media as a direct sales channel.

However, like Dell with its $6.5M+ ‘Deal Feed’ on Twitter, Sony stresses that whilst social media can be used as a direct sales channel (in the proof-of-concept case a 10% discount deal posted to its own Twitter feed (@SonyEurope)), direct sales remain secondary to primary social media objectives (customer service, customer relationship management, customer insight, and interactive news wire).

Sony Europe’s head of communication Nick Sharples also sought to put clear blue water between Dell and Sony, emphasizing the particular need for Sony to support, not compete with, the traditional retail channel – made up in Sony’s case primarily with resellers.

Five insights into Sony’s approach to social media emerge from Nick Sharples’ comments and subsequent media coverage:

  1. Sony’s social media strategy is “relationship-driven” not “campaign driven” – i.e. it’s more about customer relationship management and customer service than sales.  It follows that a prerequisite to any ‘selling with social’ at Sony is that the selling must build the brand, not erode it (i.e. no generic deals; instead deals the highlight unique features of Sony gear (e.g. personalization, added value services).  It will be interesting to see if Sony continue to walk the relationship talk – by focusing social investment on customer retention rather than acquisition – i.e. through a social media-enhanced loyalty/CRM program (sCRM)
  2. Social Media Engagement‘, not sales, is the primary objective of an effective social media strategy – servicing, informing and building dialogue with customers.  It does not follow however that this kind of ‘brand building’ is incompatible with using social media as a direct sales channel – indeed brand vs. sales is a false dichotomy -if branding is about creating choice-shaping associations in the mind of the market - then it follows that good branding must increase sales (because it influences more choices).  The issue is the time-frame used – good branding may not affect immediate sales (which is why customer lifetime value may be a better metric than sales uplift)
  3. Social Media Amplification‘ – amplifying marketing messages with social media is another core objective of Sony social media strategy
  4. Consumer Insight, not sales, is a further key objective of Sony’s social media strategy – customer understanding derived from online conversations around Sony, its brands, competitors and social media technology itself.  It follows that a key component of Sony’s social media investment are insight reports (Citizen/Customer Briefing Books?) – generated from social media monitoring.
  5. Trade Trumps Direct‘ – Using social media as a direct sales channel should not undermine relationships with the trade channel – third party retailers, partners and resellers upon whom Sony depend.  Thus ‘Social Media Promotions‘ should focus on added-value products/services exclusively available on Sony’s own e-commerce site. It follows that one future direction for Sony could be to use social media as a trade tool for improving relationships with resellers, e.g. an online Sony certification course for retailers – with a blog/forum, job board, and even social network group.  This could be a smart use of social media for Sony.