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NATIONAL REPORT -- Pending government regulation may or may not rope in electronic cigarettes, a booming product category seen by some as the last cowboy in the Wild West. But beyond the shootout over regulation, health concerns and underage smokers, a whole consumer channel — that of social media — is affected little by the white noise of mainstream media and legislators.
In a study conducted exclusively for Convenience Store News, Brand Chorus, a social intelligence practice and brand identity firm in New York City, performed a deep-dive analysis of all social media chatter around electronic cigarettes over a one-month period for a comprehensive online snapshot of consumers’ thoughts and concerns about this tobacco segment.
"Very quickly, it became clear that if we separated all of the media chatter, which is almost entirely around the issues of legislation and health, an entire consumer universe of conversations having nothing to do with these subjects revealed itself," said Bradley Nix, Brand Chorus partner. "It is inside this world that consumer insights reside."
A significant amount of online chatter centers on the topic of e-cigarettes, with 137,000 posts in a recent 30-day period alone. This is a significant number, made more significant because, for the most part, e-cigarette brands are not currently using social media to rally supporters or build brand loyalty.
However, a large amount of this activity is being driven by dubious Internet marketing practices by some manufacturers. For example, there is a plethora of affiliate marketing -- a questionable brand-building practice where a manufacturer posts a seemingly legitimate news article that drives prospects to a sales pitch for online purchase or pushes a bunch of coupons.
"There is an identifiable sub-segment of manufacturers online promoting their wares without a great deal of forethought to the future of their brands or the category," Nix said. "This is ironic because when you listen in to what the consumers are actually talking about, these fringe marketing tactics are thoroughly unnecessary. There is a wealth of valuable conversation taking place; a treasure trove of interest across this category."
If legislation isn’t the topic, what are social media users talking about?
Looking at the social media activity for the top 10 electronic cigarette brands, Brand Chorus identified three key observational trends based on its expert data analysis:
- Nearly one in five online conversations included mentions about how e-cigarettes help with smoking cessation. That is an astounding 20 percent of social media users talking about quitting smoking. Sometimes, brands initiate or harness the conversations, but hundreds of Twitter and Facebook posts are not tied to a specific brand. This creates opportunity.
- The majority of e-cigarette brands still compete on functional attributes such as price, flavor, variety, battery life, etc. Only a handful of brands, notably blu, NJOY and FIN, have emerged with strong, distinctive brands that elevate the conversation to more emotional themes.
- Leading e-cigarette brands do their best to make vaping/e-cigarettes look cool. They are creating a lifestyle. They sponsor music festivals and race cars, as well as use DJs and celebrities to promote their brands. Two words of caution: Some celebrity endorsements can backfire, as shown with the social media backlash against Jenny McCarthy’s blu campaign. The Brand Chorus study found that a majority of negative sentiment about blu during the recent 30-day period studied was driven by negative reaction over the Jenny McCarthy ads, as well some general posts against e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are a category in flux, but some clear leaders are emerging and there's room for many more strong brands, Brand Chorus concluded. Eventual winners must build a compelling brand, an engaging social presence and a strong social dialogue with consumers.