NEW YORK: Major brands like Pepsi and Dell are using social media both to connect with consumers and as a tool with which to measure the response to their marketing and communications.

PepsiCo opted against running a TV ad for its trademark cola brand during this year's Super Bowl, the first time it had been absent from the big game for more than two decades.

While high-profile spots have formed a key part of the company's marketing heritage, it decided to place social media at the heart of its latest initiative, the Refresh Everything project.

This scheme will see the soft drinks giant give away grants, to a total value of $20 million, in support of projects helping local communities, with web users being able to vote for their favourite proposals.

Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's director of social media, said "our goal is to skate to the center of culture. Right now, digital is culture."

Metrics like the "share of voice" and number of relevant "mentions" recorded on social media services will be used to assess this initiative, alongside a range of more traditional online and offline analytical tools.

Dell, the computer manufacturer, began establishing a presence on a variety of Web 2.0 platforms in 2005, in response to a large amount of negative consumer feedback, which came to be known as "Dell Hell."

It now has more than 30 accounts on Twitter, the microblogging portal, and generated more than $6m in revenues through this channel last year.

Other such activities have included IdeaStorm, a web forum where consumers can make suggestions about its product and services, and the Dell Tech Center, where IT professionals can contact its engineers directly.

Manish Mehta, Dell's vp of social media and community, said "when we first jumped headfirst into this, we started with engaging and listening to consumers. Hopefully that moved the needle."

The IT pioneer has also produced a formal framework with which to gauge the return on investment from this aspect of its operations, ranging from its impact on sales to popular sentiment concerning its brand.

"The business will at some point question how this is helping the P&L. That's why taking a step back and finding the value drivers is so important," said Mehta.

Meanwhile, H&R Block, the tax preparation specialist, has built its own online community, Get It Right, having discovered that people were reticent to talk about their problems in this area on sites like Twitter.

Some 65,000 people have joined Get It Right to date, and its panel of 1,000 tax experts have responded to 50,000 enquiries since it was launched in 2008.

Zena Weist, H&R Block's director of social media, said "a community wants a one-to-one relationship where they can continue to come back. That's not what Twitter is. You don't have continuous dialogue."

As such, the firm is employing Facebook and Twitter for promotional purposes, and to track opinion about its services among the general public, supplementing the data drawn from Get It Right.

"If your word-of-mouth isn't positive, forget about brand awareness and consideration," said Weist. "If word-of-mouth is bad, there is no consideration."

Data sourced from Adweek; additional content by Warc staff