Online vs offline: How valuable is going viral?


‘Going viral’ is often seen as the pinnacle of success for marketing or advertising teams, with the social significance of a brand measured in likes, mentions and re-shared posts.

Recently, however, businesses have started to question the power of their social media presence. Cosmetics brand Lush made headlines earlier this year after it decided to close its UK social media accounts, directing customers to its website, email and phone line for one-to-one conversations, while also increasing its emphasis on indirect online engagement via influencer marketing.

Many businesses remain committed to their social strategies, but these rumblings of concern suggest that we need to develop a more nuanced approach to online and offline consumer engagement. At Kantar, we set out to study the link between the two.  It’s easy to assume that the way consumers talk and share information about brands online, on social media or in blogs, versus what they say offline, in face-to-face conversations or over the phone, follows a similar pattern.

However, research conducted with our partner Engagement Labs shows that conversations across different channels have almost no relationship to one another – what is being said in one sphere is not indicative of what’s happening elsewhere. In practice, then, marketers need to treat online and offline chatter as distinct entities, identifying which conversations have the most impact on purchasing decisions for different brands and managing their strategies and budgets accordingly.     


Offline and online – two sides of the same coin?

The digital nature of social media makes it easy for brands to place greater emphasis on online engagement. Social data is inherently more visible and straightforward to measure compared with, for example, quantifying the amount of time people discuss a specific fashion retailer over lunch.  But by focusing on online data alone, our research suggests that brands aren’t getting the full picture of how consumers feel about their services and products.

We studied online and offline consumer conversations about nearly 400 brands in the UK, looking at four key metrics: the amount of conversation about a brand; the number of negative conversations versus positive ones; how often consumers share a brand’s marketing in their online or offline conversations; and how engaged on- and offline influencers are with a brand. Across all measures, we found relatively low correlation.

So, why the difference and why does it matter? The experience of Yorkshire Tea is an illuminating example. In 2017, a Welsh gardener took to social media to complain about non-biodegradable plastic residue left by Yorkshire Tea bags in his compost bin. A groundswell of negative opinion soon built up, with consumers pressuring tea companies to abandon plastics in single-use bags. By March 2018, the gardener’s social media campaign had generated more than 200,000 responses.

Looking at this data alone, you would have said that Yorkshire Tea and its peers were in trouble, and several tea manufacturers took steps to respond to the concern about plastics. Looking offline, however, positive sentiment about Yorkshire Tea remained constant. No British tea brand has witnessed the short-term business fallout that social media suggested, and sales weren’t dented at all. Meanwhile, social media sentiment levels were back to normal by summer 2018. Tea brands made business decisions based solely on analysis of social media conversations, with benefits for the environment, but in the end this online furore was nothing more than a storm in a teacup.


Getting the full picture

The Yorkshire Tea case study is an important reminder that businesses need to listen to what consumers are saying on and offline to make well-informed investments – whether for their marketing spend or wider consumer offering. Social media can be a wild west of strong, often unchecked views and the people posting regularly represent just a small proportion of the population. In contrast, we all discuss service experiences and products with friends and family. The range of brands talked about offline is usually broader too, covering everyday household wares alongside higher value and trendier goods.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore online conversations. They still matter, but marketers and advertisers need to achieve balance, acknowledging more visible and quantifiable activity on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram but recognising that conversations here can be very different to what people are saying around the kitchen table.

A high-end clothing retailer might see greater influence on purchasing decisions driven by Instagram activity, while a detergent brand will achieve better return on investment by tracking and influencing offline chatter. What matters is that brands themselves are talking about and understanding different consumer conversation channels and shaping their marketing and advertising strategies to fit.

Matt Dodd is MD of the analytics practice at Kantar.


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