Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Kevin Magee, Director of Sales for Expion, and a client of Social Media Explorer.

Social media has permanently changed the relationship between brands and consumers, but has it shifted the way large brands relate to smaller companies? Yes, particularly when it comes to competitive intelligence.

Before social became a mandatory line-item on a brand’s media plan, assessing the competitive marketing landscape and figuring out how to gain traction was relatively straightforward and limited.   Does your competitor have more brand awareness in a target DMA? Study their TV spots and placements, then create your own and pay for the air cover across multiple stations. Need more sales in a specific city? Buy more radio ads or print placements in the local paper.

For forward-thinking brands, even “guerilla” or “experiential” marketing – people handing out flyers, sampling products in stores, etc. – was on the table. Ultimately, companies could focus on brand awareness or increasing sales simply by spending more money, and with few exceptions, brands with smaller budgets were definitely the underdog.

Social has changed this. Although we’re still waiting for Facebook and Twitter to evolve into robust sales funnels, we no longer question their efficacy as branding and messaging platforms. Smaller companies with no strongholds to lose and plenty of market-share to gain quickly saw social for what it was: A low-cost direct-to-consumer marketing channel. Big brands followed, and though it has become more costly to execute effective social campaigns (Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man” whirlwind didn’t come cheap or easy, remember?) the playing field has still been leveled.

This shift has made it harder to for companies to understand how to compete with their rivals for two main reasons. First, it’s harder to know who your real rivals are, and there are an almost infinite number of variables to compare. You can’t just spend more to win. Winning at social means constantly creating and optimizing the right content for the right audience, at the right time and on the right channels. Oh, and doing it better than multiple other companies vying for the consumers’ attention.

Restaurant Industry Rankings - Ad AgeTake the top restaurant brands, for example. Ad Age ranked the top 18 in terms of ad spending, and naturally, the big names like McDonald’s, Subway and Burger King came out on top. But when we took those 18 brands and analyzed them as part of the top 50 restaurant brands overall in terms of Facebook fans, we found that the smaller companies with smaller budgets consistently had more engaged fans.

Ad Spend vs. “Active” Fans

The restaurant mega-brands have an exponential number of fans. Subway, for example, ranked second highest in ad spend and boasts over 8 million fans. But how many of those fans are “active?” Strip out simple “Likes” and drill down to the number of fans that have actually posted or commented on Subway’s page and you wind up with just 0.5% of those “fans.”

White Castle Burgers, on the other hand, didn’t even show up on Ad Age’s big spender list, and they only have about 310,000 fans, but just over 16,000 (or more than 5%) are active. That’s the highest percentage of all of the top 50 brands overall.

KFC is one of the top spenders and has over 3 million fans. However, only 0.40% of those fans have engaged with the brand over the past six months.  Chili’s was also a top spender according to Ad Age, but boasted the second-highest active fan percentage (4.4%) overall.

Does this mean that Subway is competing with White Castle Burgers, or that Chili’s should be the top brand on KFC’s radar? No, but it means that both KFC and Subway would be well served to track what other companies like White Castle Burgers and Chili’s are doing on Facebook – when they’re posting, how often they’re responding to comments, the kinds of sentiment that their fan posts tend to have – if they really want to maximize their social presence. That’s not just social media management, that’s competitive social media intelligence.

Most Engaging Content

The best competitive intelligence also provides insight into what rival brands are saying in social – not just when they post and how. For example, we found that five restaurant brands accounted for the hottest posts of the summer in terms of Fan comments. While the big spenders on Ad Age’s list took four out of five of those top spots, the most engaging brand – ­Buffalo Wild Wings, a smaller, east coast-based franchise – beat them all.

Expion Chart - Most Engaging Facebook Content

The bottom line? The social media landscape has become more cluttered, and smaller brands can be more effective than larger companies with deeper pockets. The notion of winning the “social consumer” by outspending your rivals is not the approach a truly social brand should take. Winning at social means blending creative vision with competitive intelligence data to help optimize everything from Facebook ad spend, to  knowing when to post what on which platform, as well as knowing which of your brand’s posts actually drive engagement. So while money can’t buy social media love, companies should definitely make the investment in competitive social media intelligence.

 IMAGE NOTE: The Restaurant Industry image was taken from a larger infographic created by MarketingDegree.net for AdAge. To see the entire infographic, visit AdAge’s post which features other industries.

Kevin Magee - ExpionAbout the Guest Author:  Kevin Magee is the Director of Sales for Expion and has been instrumental in helping the company grow its client base. He brings nearly two decades of enterprise sales, management and marketing experience to the team, including P&L responsibility and strategic development. Expion’s  software manages thousands of business profiles on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and beyond.  Its centralized platform empowers customers to localize and align their social marketing efforts.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

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  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual Business Assistant

    Hi Kevin,
    Great post. There is no doubt that the internet has forever changed the world in which we live.Understanding how and when customers are engaging with your brand is critical for establishing more meaningful connections with them. Social Media is not a platform to deliver sales pitch. It’s not about talking about yourself. Listening to the audience to find out their needs and then responding to them to fulfill those can result in a healthy relationship in between the business and its customers. And Social Media is the right place to practice that.

    • Kevin Magee

      Thanks and yes, the brands and companies that focus on the customer and what they want to hear- they are the ones with the engagement!  Kevin

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  • Rowan Casey

    Social media is the way of the future, and those that have the most connections will be the ones who succeed with anything they decide to do. 

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