An agency head told me how he was on a call between the European head of marketing for a US brand and that brand’s board of directors. The chairman asked the marketing honcho, “How is the European market?” The marketer answered, “There isn’t one.” Awkward silence. “That is, there is no European market. There is a French market. A German market. A British one. And so on. I can tell you about those.”

In no other sphere of marketing are these national differences magnified more than in social media. Social media is, by its nature, participatory and thus takes on the form, tone, and color of its users. Social media in Germany is German social media. In France, French social media.

Then brands enter the picture. That social media strategy hatched in Dallas or Dublin, with a sum earmarked for translations, will not cut it.

Three reasons cookie-cutter strategies will fail in Europe:

  • Europeans as a broad group are less likely to engage with brands on social media than, say, in the United States or metro Hong Kong.
  • Europeans’ usage differ significantly country to country; Italians usage is not comparable to German usage.
  • Each market boasts strong local players that excel at the intricacies of their market’s social media usage.

Further, despite their desire to make data-driven strategic decisions, European marketers have long been starved of relevant cross-market data to make decisions. Knowing how many Italians use Facebook every day doesn’t tell a marketer very much about how he can use social media on his website to help Italian consumers explore his brand or products.

As a result, standard operating procedures for social media are uncritically rolled out in Europe. And when they fail, the result is chalked up to European exceptionalism (social media “doesn’t work” in Europe). In fact, social media works just fine in European markets; strategies are just off.

Leo Ryan of Social@Ogilvy shared an example with us: “Brands use social in Europe mostly for awareness, and some post-purchase. However, when we look at the impact of reviews, for example, we get their attention. They need to be thinking about functional content, not just aspirational content.” It’s as if marketers have been trying to blaze a trail through the jungle with a soup spoon, instead of a machete, and blame the spoon, the jungle, or both.

Europe’s many markets hold big potential for brands. But our research on local conditions makes it clear that many brands are missing out on that potential and offers tools (including Forrester’s Social Technographics® data) to turn the situation around.

Europe. Vive la difference!