Nine (or ten) ways to stumble in social media

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Last week's presentation at the Vancouver High-Tech Communicators' Exchange was a great time: a really engaged audience, provocative and challenging questions, and a razor-sharp co-presenter – mi amigo Kris Krüg. (Catch Dave Olson's amazingly thorough account here.) We took a look at marketing with social media, through the lens of some very successful efforts.

But it's human nature to stare at train wrecks, and it's no surprise that the biggest response came from our look at how you can bomb horribly. I came up with a list of nine routes to social media shame:

  1. Sign warning of stumbling hazard


    Gaming the system: Yes, there's nothing stopping you from trying to rewrite a Wikipedia entry to your advantage... but something like Virgil Griffith's Wikipedia Scanner could make your life a PR misery. (Read about the misadventures of voting-machine-maker Diebold here.) The online world is full of talented people fanatically devoted to exposing online frauds and defending the integrity of the commons; cross them at your peril.
  2. Putting on a puppet show: If only those social media sites had comments raving about you or your brand. So why not log in under a false identity (what the online world calls a sock-puppet) and leave those comments yourself? According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey tried it, trashing the competition and boosting his company on Yahoo's message boards. The result: a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation... and a very public humiliation.
  3. Flogging: If the sock puppet has a cousin, it's the fake blog, or "flog". Take the All I Want for Xmas is a PSP blog, purportedly written by a guy begging his parents for the Sony gaming console... but in reality the creation of a marketing firm. The blog was designed to become a meme, spreading virally across the Internet, and in a way it did – but not the way anyone at Sony would have wanted. Instead, it was outed on the forums at Something Awful, and the meme's message was that Sony was duping the public.
  4. Playing coy: Outright dishonesty isn't the only thing that can trip you up. Wal-Marting Across America was a blog by a middle-aged couple driving their RV across the U.S., camping overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots and telling stories about the wonderful people they met – a remarkable number of whom had glowing things to say about Wal-Mart. None of this was untrue; the couple was genuine, the RV was an RV, and nobody's disputing the stories people were telling. But what the blog didn't mention – anywhere – is that the whole thing was paid for by Wal-Mart itself: from airfares to the RV itself. The blog was outed, the story hit the mainstream media, and both Wal-Mart and their PR firm, Edelman, were left looking very much like they'd tried to pull something sleazy.
  5. Forgetting your users: Not every misstep puts egg on your face; sometimes, all that happens is you don't get nearly the results you'd hoped for. The web is still full of organizational blogs, created purely to push out spin, written in market-ese and utterly failing to engage visitors. In other cases, organizations put their own preoccupations front and centre and shove their audiences' to the side. Take this page of McDonald's podcasts. The only featured podcasts are a speech by the CFO and (literally) hours of business analysts' reports. The stuff consumers would be interested in, geared to changing public perceptions of McDonald's as an rapacious behemoth bent on global destruction? Buried far down the page... among shareholders' meetings and earnings conference calls.

    The flip side of the nothing-but-spin blog is the nothing-but-nothing blog. CEO bloggers who tell us what they had for breakfast, how their last flight went, what the view's like from their hotel room may be fascinating to themselves, but their readers deserve a lot more. This is an opportunity to offer insights, passion and some thought leadership; please don't pass it up.
  6. Acting like you own the place: You may own the servers, the software, the branding – but you don't own the community. Forgetting that, for instance by making big changes without consulting the community or, worse, letting them know why, is a recipe for disaster. Facebook triggered a firestorm recently with its Beacon fiasco; that suggests they may not learn from their mistakes, because they went through a similar debacle in September 2006 when they launched news feeds and minifeeds. In each case, they backed down. Heavy-handed actions can be just as bad. When the Washington Post encountered a flood of abusive comments on one of its blogs, they could have decided to have a moderator approve each comment before publishing it, until the flood subsided. Instead, they temporarily suspended commenting altogether – and endured a week of accusations of censorship and bad faith.
  7. Looking down your nose: Oh, Target, Target, Target. Your selection of quality goods is so impressive; your blogger engagement strategy... not so much. In January, a blogger asked Target to explain one of their ads, which she felt was sexually exploitive. Target's PR department replied by email, "Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets." That garnered them a bunch of ill-will in the blogging world... and some bad press in one of those more traditional media outlets that Target prizes so highly.
  8. Letting it slide: Setting up a blog or other social web presence is the easy part. The real work comes in doing the gardening: seeding new content, nurturing the shoots of new community and, when necessary, weeding out abuses. Canadian politician Paul Martin launched a blog that went months without new posts; it became an embarrassment. And you don't have to search too far to find blogs and forums that have become playgrounds for comment spam.
  9. Pitching without looking: Engaging with bloggers? Good idea. Firing off impersonal pitches with no idea who you're talking to? Bad idea. For an extreme example, see what happened when a PR firm pitching an upcoming American Idol gimmick included a public relations watchdog site in its mailing list. That's a worst-case scenario; more likely, you'll get a snarky blog post or just plain ignored for your troubles. Blogs are highly personal endeavours, and only a few earn an income for their creators; the rest are labours of love. Treat them that way. My co-presenter, Kris, wisely suggested you read a blog for at least a week, then join its commenting community, and then try pitching the author – in a personal way that relates directly to the blog's focus.

Actually, there's a 10th way to stumble in this space. And that's to let the first nine scare you away from social media.

The fact is, you only have to search Technorati to see that the conversation is already happening: about you, your competitors, or an issue you care about passionately. It goes on with or without your participation.

You can make that participation positive and productive – and avoid pretty much any of those pitfalls I've mentioned – if you start from the right place. Proceed with authenticity and transparency; respect your audience and the community you're engaging; understand that this can be hard work, and dedicate resources accordingly... and even if you do stumble, you'll have friends ready to catch you.

This isn't an exhaustive list – I'd love to know what navigational hazards appear on your map of the social media world.

By the way, here's some of the coverage of our talk in the blogging world:


Shaping Youth says

February 22, 2008 - 11:34pm
Great post. Needless to say, my 'contextual query' to Target that veered off course (from my original post about ambient advertising cues and objectification Hooter girl toddler tees, etc.) taught me a lot about social media spread and lack of control over web conversations universally. It's all about where the community chooses to take the dialogue. You can try to redirect the flow of the conversation, but there's no guarantee you won't be swept into the churn. (yah, you can tell I had no intent of having our nonprofit end up the poster child for Target's PR mishaps) Anyway, love the content here...great info to keep in mind from an authenticity standpoint for us all. On Shaping Youth we're thinking about starting a 'positive social media' blurb called 'Baby Steps' to promote/applaud corporations striving hard to 'do it right' and create social change from the actions of even ONE human being as it hopefully catches on/spreads to others like a viral feed. (e.g. Like the inspirational Walgreens/S.C. employees initiated by the autistic teen son of one of their execs:

Rob Cottingham says

February 23, 2008 - 10:09pm
I love the Baby Steps idea! Please keep me posted... and thanks for leaving your comment!

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