Brands risk the slur of ‘stealth marketing’ if they do not have transparent social media strategies, says Andy Poole

Children spend seven hours a day living an electronic life, according to a recent study. 

This means they're spending every waking minute outside school or college using smart phones, surfing the net, watching TV, listening to MP3s and playing video games.

 Not surprisingly, the popularity of digital communications among the 'digital native' generation has not escaped the attention of businesses keen to reach a huge audience. Businesses are reinventing how they market to young people, promoting brand awareness and endorsement via social networks and social media, trying different strategies and tactics as they aim for success in new territories.

But they need to tread carefully. These channels were created for socialising, not selling, and it's easy to be accused of stealth marketing.

Last week, the national media questioned the tactics employed by brands including Sprite, Fanta, Dr Pepper and Cheestrings.

It was alleged that the brands' marketers were rewarding children with free products and gift vouchers for posting positive brand mentions in their online conversations.

From the marketers' viewpoint, stealth marketing is simply a tried and tested route to market.  However, they're pushing through a channel governed by a new set of rules and ultimately a channel that is led by advocates ­, not the brands.

Brands must develop online strategies that are based on integrity, transparency and respect. From the outset, they need to be clear with users about how they are working and what they are aiming to achieve. This will help avoid cynicism about their intentions and help drive the desired response.

Brands need to understand their target market. They need to get to grips with the language users speak in, the topics they are discussing and where conversations are taking place.

By listening to online conversations, brands can determine when and how to appropriately join a conversation and the tactics to use to promote their brand in a timely, relevant and acceptable manner ­ and avoid the pitfalls they'd encounter if they rushed in head first.

Andy Poole is a digital strategist, regions, at PR agency Weber Shandwick North.

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