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You Can’t Control the Conversation on Social Media (and That’s Okay)

You Can’t Control the Conversation on Social Media (and That’s Okay) Hafez Adel
Beyond all of the Likes, retweets and +1s, social media’s greatest gift to marketers is that it helps give brands a human face. Before the social media revolution, virtually all brand communications were one-way—the brands talk and the consumers listen, with no possibility for participation. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online discussion forums, however, consumers now have the ability to speak directly to brands and share their experiences with brands with their friends.

At first blush, this seems like a marketer’s dream come true. Why go through the hassle of securing formal case studies and testimonials when people are talking about your brand organically, without prompting or payment? You can’t buy that kind of authenticity (though many have tried). Considering that social graph recommendations have a significant influence on people’s buying behavior, high customer engagement on social media seems like an unequivocal boon for marketers.

But what happens when people start saying things about your brand that you don’t want them to say?

Therein lies the rub: by giving people a platform to express their opinions about your brand, you also cede control over the conversation. As a marketer you can try to create the conditions which foster positive feelings toward your brand, but you can’t force it. That’s a lesson that McDonald’s, Netflix and the Susan G. Komen Foundation learned too late.

On January 18 of this year, McDonald’s launched a Promoted Hashtag on Twitter: #McDStories. The idea was simple enough: encourage people to share their love for McDonald’s with their friends and followers. Yet within an hour, the #McDStories hashtag was overrun with horror stories about food poisoning, terrible customer service, and insider dirt from former McDonald’s employees—probably not the kind of stories McDonald’s had in mind. Within two hours, McDonald’s pulled the hashtag entirely. McDonald’s had paid tens of thousands of dollars for a Promoted Hashtag to bolster their brand, and instead they had given their critics a highly-visible platform for their complaints.

Other companies have used social media to share major news directly with their customers and solicit their feedback in real-time, as Netflix did when they announced their pricing hike in July 2011. Users were able to leave comments using their Facebook logins, and they did—in droves. The blog post generated close to 13,000 comments (compared to around 170 comments for the preceding post). The vast majority of the comments were negative, with several people explicitly saying that they were going to cancel their memberships and never return. Netflix’s subscriber projections—and stock price—tumbled in response.

Thanks to the two-way communication it enables, social media has also become an essential aspect of modern public relations. On January 31 of this year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that it was going to discontinue funding for breast cancer screenings for Planned Parenthood, insisting that it was making the decision for non-political reasons. The backlash was immediate. Scores of people took to Twitter and Susan G. Komen’s Facebook page to protest the move and demand an explanation. Possibly caught off-guard by the political firestorm that they had started, the staff of the Susan G. Komen Foundation was also slow to respond to people via social media, allowing one side of the conversation to build in strength while offering no response whatsoever.  To make matters worse, people accused the Foundation of deleting critical Facebook posts from their page, which if true would be a grave faux pas for a platform predicated on honest communication and transparency. By February 3, the Foundation reversed its decision and promised to continue to fund existing grants to Planned Parenthood, and to maintain Planned Parenthood’s eligibility to receive future grants.

Lessons Learned

As each of the cases above illustrates, social media is a two-way street, not a one-way broadcast platform. This is what makes social media conversations so powerful and compelling—they represent the actual views of real people. By providing consumers with a platform to share their thoughts and opinions, brands need to anticipate that some of what will be said will not be flattering. The question becomes: how can brands better prepare themselves against a social media backlash?

1. Plan Carefully

The #McDStories hashtag was too broad and open to interpretation; it practically invited abuse. You can avoid the same fate for your brand by trying to explicitly set the guidelines for the conversation (and no, #GoodMcDStories doesn’t count). In 2010, Hershey’s launched the hashtag #CookieHQ in a bid to position themselves as the go-to resource for all of your cookie baking needs. By tweeting your baking question to #CookieHQ, you would get a personal response from one of Hershey’s baking experts. The hashtag is specific enough to discourage off-brand use, yet also directly relevant to Hershey’s business as it helped start thousands of conversations around cookie-baking best practices.

2. Respond Quickly

When it comes to social media, silence is deadly. If you’re not participating in a conversation about your brand, then your critics will fill the silence for you. Given that rumors can start in a second and spread like wildfire on social networks, it’s especially important for brands in a crisis situation to enter the fray early and engage frequently to dispel any disinformation that may be floating around. The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s failure to respond quickly allowed rumors to sprout and spread, rumors which are not easily quelled once they’re released.

Responding quickly will also help differentiate your social media account from those of your competitors and provide them with an incentive to follow and engage with you online; studies show that around 56% of brands did not respond to a single customer comment on their Facebook page in 2011.

3. Be Candid

The more forthright your brand is on social media, the more credibility you’ll have in your customers’ eyes. Conversely, evasive or incomplete answers will only incense your critics further. In Netflix’s case, several people said that the company’s blog post angered them more than the price increase itself—that the company’s attempt at “spinning” the price increase was the real transgression. Social media personifies your brand, so you need to be mindful of maintaining a good reputation.

4. Segment the Conversation

Let’s suppose the worst-case scenario happens: your company makes a major PR blunder, and you can’t seem to stem the tide of criticism on social media. One promising tactic to protect your brand is to provide people with a forum in which they can vent their frustrations, directing attention away from your primary conversation feed (i.e. your Facebook Timeline or primary Twitter account). During the Susan G. Komen fiasco, Yoplait, which is a sponsor of the Foundation, created a separate Facebook tab called “Your Thoughts…” designed to provide people with a space in which they discuss the Planned Parenthood situation. Thus Yoplait was able to engage the issue head-on (and get in front of the story), while also keeping its primary social media feed largely free of angry attacks and political controversy.

5. Embrace the Chaos

Having a social media presence is a gamble for brands. It can help you burnish your brand’s reputation, engender customer loyalty, and drive revenue, but it will also provide a magnifying glass for all of your faults as a company. Social media can give your brand a human face, but it can also give your detractors a public target towards which they can direct their dissatisfaction.

How can your brand effectively manage the uncertainty inherent in social media? Abandon your illusion of complete control, because when it comes to social media that control simply won’t be there. Instead, look at the operant word in social media—social. Like any other social situation, there are values and habits that will help establish a good reputation. Simply participating often, admitting your mistakes, and being humble and honest will help you score points in the social media game. It’s easy for people to heap scorn on a corporation because it’s faceless to the outside world. But if you take care to create a likable social media persona for your brand, you may not have to worry constantly about what people are saying about you online. If you play your cards right, at least some of those conversations will be positive.

Hafez is the Director of Marketing for ReTargeter, a digital marketing and online advertising platform specializing in retargeting solutions for brands of all sizes.  Prior to working at ReTargeter, Hafez worked in the B2G industry helping...

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