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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Dark Side of Social Media And 5 Ways to Avoid It

PR blogs have been on fire the past week debating the Walmart blog fiasco with Edelman at the helm.  Some have taken a subtle delight in Edelman's failure (see comments on Richard's response post), while others have shared fears about what this means for the future of PR and social media.  At it's core, the Walmart case illustrates what is quickly growing to become the dark side of social media - the ease with which the truth can be manipulated.  More and more consumers believe that new blogs or videos posted online are real if they "look real."  Accordingly, there is an expectation from consumers that companies are using personal media to communicate more authentically with them.  As companies start to fail this trust by using personal media covertly for marketing or advertising, critics are coining terms like "flogs" and "astroturfing" to symbolize this emerging dark side of social media. 

Yet this criticism is not new when it comes to complaints about authenticity in marketing.  That debate has long existed, and in part this has led to a situation where most US consumers have become adept at filtering out irrelevant or outrageous marketing claims.  Unfortunately, consumers are learning that their built in radar honed over a lifetime of seeing (and ignoring) interruption marketing messages is now inadequate.  Consumers are being duped easily by phenomena like the LonelyGirl15 episode, where a seemingly authentic conversation turned out to be a publicity stunt.  Consumers are no longer as confident in their ability to spot a marketing message.  As a result, their guard is up.  Their radars are peaked and they are on the lookout for anything inauthentic.  They pounce on corporate missteps like the one from Walmart and blogs that raise the most hell or break the news get the most traffic.  It is the personal media equivalent of the journalist's search for the scoop ... the blogger's search for the dupe.

Looking at all these risks, some organizations might conclude that it is wiser to simply avoiding doing anything with personal media altogether.  This is a big mistake.  Despite the risks, using personal media for marketing can offer a chance for an authentic dialogue with customers, a chance to ask for and act on direct customer feedback, and a unique and human voice for what may otherwise be a faceless corporation.  In short, the benefits are worth it.  But how can any marketing team hoping to engage in personal media avoid the fate of Walmart, Dell and others?  How do we counsel our clients on using personal media in a way that engages people rather than offering them fuel for contempt?  Below are five lessons that may help in avoiding the dark side of personal media, and finding success in the blogosphere:

  1. Be as transparent as you can.  Transparency is key, as flogs and astroturfing are both based on marketing efforts that are dishonest and lack transparency.  Yet full transparency can make a campaign boring or give away too much too quickly.  The trick is to strike a balance where you maintain authenticity without necessarily giving away every detail.
  2. Don't be afraid to "admit" you are marketing. This is the single biggest myth that lots of marketing teams believe ... that if they admit they are marketing people will stop paying attention.  If a marketing message resonates- the fact that it happens to be marketing doesn't matter.  This is one of the central concepts behind WOM, that consumers are willing and often happy to support marketing and even become brand ambassadors for something they believe in.
  3. Understand who your detractors are, and assume they will always hate you.  One of the many concepts I picked up from Seth Godin that I am fond of quoting is that every customer has a worldview.  And this world view is nearly impossible to change.  Chevy Tahoe's viral promotion failed because people who hate SUVs are highly vocal, and people who like them are embarrassed to admit it.  The lesson here is to know who hates you and assume they will be vocal about their hatred.  The only way to manage this is if that group happens to be relatively small, or if you have a equally vocal group of people who love you.
  4. Make sure you have supporters that will fight for you. This relates to the point above.  When engaging in personal media, you can't succeed if everyone universally hates you.  You need to find a way to engage those people who like your product, service or what you are trying to do.  Ultimately, these voices supporting you in personal media will matter far more than anything you are able to release in your marketing.
  5. Listen, participate and respond. This may be fifth in the list, but is perhaps the most important.  If you look at every instance of personal media marketing horror stories, from the Kryptonite Bike Lock, to Dell Hell, to Walmart ... each could have been managed far better if the companies involved had listened, participated and responded to issues or problems raised on blogs.  This is important at all times, and particularly after launching new campaigns and marketing efforts as well.

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» Transparent Marketing from Aaron-Rosenthal.com
A friend sent me a great post by Rohit Bhargava on the The Dark Side of Social Media And 5 Ways to Avoid It. This post points to the recent uncovering of fake blogs like walmartingacrossamerica.com the YouTube.com phenominon LonelyGirl15 [Read More]

» The Dark Side of Social Media And How to Avoid It from Internet Marketing Tips for Professionals and Small Businesses from Denise Wakeman
Rohit Bhargava writes an excellent post on how to avoid going to the dark side when using social media for promotion and marketing. This is partially in response to the recent scandal that outed PR firm Edelman for not being transparent about creating ... [Read More]

» The Dark Side of Social Media And 5 Ways to Avoid It : Influential Interactive Marketing Blog from
A post in response to the Edelman flogging incident offering 5 tips for how to avoid making similar mistakes and marketing with social media without getting flamed. [Read More]

» Shouldn't Legitimately Victimized Consumers Get Mad, Then Get Justice vs. "Get Even"? - Brokerblogger from Brokerblogger
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» Should edelman be booted from WOMMA? from adland
Viralmeister points out that B. L. Ochman from the what\'s next blog is on a crusade to get the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) to throw out Edelman PR for clearly violating their ethics code with their fake blog for Wal-Mart, and a few oth... [Read More]

» Should edelman be booted from WOMMA? from adland
Viralmeister points out that B. L. Ochman from the what\'s next blog is on a crusade to get the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) to throw out Edelman PR for clearly violating their ethics code with their fake blog for Wal-Mart, and a few oth... [Read More]

» The dark side of social media from Beyond PR
Rohit Bhargava comments on the risks for consumers to be turned off from blogs, who supposed to be genuine voices but who are increasingly tainted by "flogs" and "astroturfing". His 5 lessons: - Be as transparent as you can - Don't be affraid to ad... [Read More]

Comments

Has Public Relations Become Synonymous with Spam?

How PR Got Locked Out of the Web Revolution. Is Its Image Repairable?

This isn’t about what PR was forty years ago, or even ten. It’s certainly not about the once press-service function that was Ivy Lee. It’s not even about the marketing function that is Fleishman-Hillard, Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Ogilvy, Ruder Finn, GolinHarris or 99 percent of the agencies out there. This is about PR and its role on the web. This chronicles how the PR industry was until recently steamrolling its latest thing with total assuredness and bravado. Note “was.”

http://www.strumpette.com/archives/201-Has-Public-Relations-Become-Synonymous-with-Spam.html

This is a critical point: "Make sure you have supporters that will fight for you."

That is the essence of the chasm that exists in all these quasi grassroots initiatives that in fact are front groups. Companies are faced with the fact that there AREN'T suporters willing to fight, so they create their own out of whole cloth.

The challenge that public relations practitioners face is how to identify, educate and engage these people. Anyone who has executed a grassroots engagement program -- a legitimate one -- can tell you that it's hard work. It takes time. There are no short cuts. For these reasons, PR firms have a tendency to generate their own organizations and hope to attact individuals and other organizations who have a stake in whatever issue they're involved in.

If given a chance, organizations such as Working Families for Wal-Mart can indeed take on a life of their own and blossom into truly independent bodies. But it doesn't happen overnight.

Ultimately, this comes down to agencies and clients who want immediate results and are unwilling to admit how hard it is to do what we do the right way.

Thanks for the advice.

As a consumer advocate and marketer, I believe that you almost have it right, Rohit, except in two things: "Yet full transparency can make a campaign boring or give away too much too quickly. The trick is to strike a balance where you maintain authenticity without necessarily giving away every detail." Clear and conspicuous transparency is FTC law, not just a WOMMA mandate. I believe that "flogs" and "astroturfing" are a form of propaganda ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda ), as it comes under the FTC's "The Applicability of FTC Law to Internet Advertising" - "The FTC Act’s prohibition on "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" broadly covers advertising claims, marketing and promotional activities, and sales practices in general." ( http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/dotcom/index.html#II ). They also come under the "FTC GUIDES CONCERNING USE OF ENDORSEMENTS AND TESTIMONIALS IN ADVERTISING" ( http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/guides/endorse.htm )

The second thing is "Understand who your detractors are, and assume they will always hate you."..."And this world view is nearly impossible to change." I believe that marketers should try to change the "world views" of consumers. Something ventured could mean something gained, even if it is only trying to participate in the Cluetrain Manifesto's conversation. Bob Liodice has said that the "Consumer is in control", and that marketers have to "manage and build" their brands ( http://attentionmax.com/blog/2006/10/ana_consumer_is_in_control.html ). "Managing" means listening and responding to the consumers who make good sense. Of course, if the seller has unremarkable products or, worse yet, products or services that don't give the consumer real or even just perceived value, then buyer/seller conversations should be avoided by the seller.

You, and WOMMA say it yourselves, "..consumers are willing and often happy to support marketing and even become brand ambassadors for something they believe in." The key is to get them to "believe in" the long term truth that the seller has "changed its evil ways". Or, convince the consumer that there was a misunderstanding on his part, if that's really true.

As a cynical optimist, I believe that most traditional ad agencies and some marketers have to be given some "tough love" by the consumer and maybe even the FTC before they realize the truth that the buyer and seller are, or at least should be, on the same side.

I haven't done my blog post on this yet, but a recent ABC 20/20 webcast has motivated me to do one.


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