Amazon is primed for a social showdown with Apple

The online retailer is stealing Apple's share of consumer conversations, write researchers at Engagement Labs.

Amazon is pressing the pace and closing fast on digital rival Apple in the horse race to dominate consumer conversations. While Apple still leads among the so-called "Four Horseman" brands of the digital age–Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google–Amazon has the most momentum as the brands come 'round the bend into 2017, with Facebook also gaining but not yet threatening the leaders. Our analysis of the last three years of social media conversations has found that Apple's social influence is waning.

We've found that brands gaining conversation share, TalkShare, also tend to gain in the marketplace. Stock performance usually tracks with social influence data, picking Amazon and Facebook as the conversation and stock winners (stock prices up about 40 percent vs. a year ago for both) over Apple (up 30 percent) and Google (up 18 percent). Similarly, a 2014 market mix modeling study found that consumer conversations can predict between 5 percent and 25 percent of consumer sales, depending on the category.

When Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern, coined the term "Four Horsemen of the digital economy" in 2015 he also predicted Apple and Facebook to be "winners" and Amazon and Google to be "losers" in driving value and influence. According to our analysis of the Four Horsemen, Amazon and Apple are the clear leaders in total volume of conversations, but on a trend basis, the winners are Amazon and Facebook. In other words, while our data agree with Galloway's prediction with respect to Facebook, they suggest the biggest winner of all is Amazon.

When you calculate TalkShare (share of consumer conversations) among the Four Horsemen, Apple and its sub-brands have the greatest share among the four in 2016, at 59 percent. However, that share is down from 67 percent a year ago and 73 percent in 2014. At the same time, Amazon is directly stealing share from Apple, increasing from 16 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2016, while Facebook and Google's shares remain stable.

Apple talk declined year-over-year, despite a 52 percent increase in conversations about the iPhone in 2016. In fact, the iPhone 7 was the most talked-about iPhone launch in our dataset—and while Apple Watch talk increased slightly, it still wasn't enough to offset the decline for Apple's corporate brand and the computing business. This raises a question about whether Apple is deliberately de-emphasizing it's corporate brand in favor of product brands like iPhone; however, even if intentional, the net effect is still negative overall.

It's also important to note that Apple is losing the most momentum among their young audiences. Teens, in particular, are much less likely to be talking about Apple, with a 2 billion drop in impressions compared to 2015. However, teens are still expressing interest and having conversations about the iPhone, but the declining relevance of Mac (and laptops in general) among the younger generation offset this interest and resulted in a substantial year-over-year decline for Apple. If Apple wants to turn around their social influence trend, they are going to need to find a way to ignite more sharing among consumers in their teens and 20s, for whom Apple may feel like a brand of their parents' generation.

Meanwhile, Amazon's social influence had tremendous momentum throughout 2016 across almost all demographic groups. Amazon talk is up 43 percent from 2015 to 2016, a year in which it generated more than 10 billion word of mouth (WOM) impressions. Amazon's sub-brand Amazon Prime is the primary driver of this growth, more than tripling from one year to the next and accounting for more than 3 billion impressions in 2016. Prime is simultaneously a media platform, with a strong library of content and a long list of originals, and a loyalty program, encouraging repeat shopping by offering free two-day shipping to members. "Membership has its privileges," as American Express' advertising slogan said, and Amazon's positioning and commitment to being a true ecosystem, connected by Prime, is clearly driving the consumer conversation forward and spreading social influence.

Amazon's social influence trajectory would have Amazon surpassing Apple in the not-too-distant future. Can Amazon keep the momentum going by maintaining and enhancing the Prime membership experience? Will the decline of computing and commoditization of smartphones cause the flip to happen sooner rather than later? Or will Apple's diversification and investment in content creation be enough to hold on to its No. 1 rank among the Four Horsemen?

Time will tell, but Amazon's recent gains provide a valuable lesson for marketers. Amazon is benefiting not only from busting out of its historic category as "online retailer," but also by investing in long-term relationships with consumers through Prime. This is a great way to gain entry not only into a consumer's circle of trust, but, indeed into the social marketing winner's circle too.

—Brad Fay is chief research officer and Maggie Fosdick is vice president of client success at Engagement Labs.

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