Increasingly, Fortune 500 companies like Ford, Wal-Mart, Sony and Dell are embarking on social media marketing campaigns and blundering, big time.
At best, they wasted a lot of money on ill-conceived campaigns involving blogs, video-sharing sites like YouTube, social networks like MySpace and other new media where users (horrors!) can actually create content.
At worst, their futile attempts at old-style message control (masquerading as new media) did permanent damage to their brands in the very markets that will determine their future fortunes.
Other companies, including IBM, Lego, P&G and Netflix, are getting social media right, or at least trying very hard.
Let's take a look at the good, the dreadful and the redeeming in corporate social media marketing.
What all of these companies should be doing with social media is inviting customers to tell them what they really love and hate about the company, and ask them how to move forward.
Customers are incredibly smart and remarkably creative. Trust them! They can create a far better marketing message than you can. Let them do it.
And some companies are doing just that, with remarkable results. Here are a few examples:
Netflix Prize is offering $1 million to anyone who can come up with a way to substantially improve the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to love a movie based on their movie preferences.
Lego Mindstorms is a line of Lego sets combining programmable bricks with electric motors and sensors, gears, axles, beams, et cetera, for building robots.
They have created a strong community of professionals and hobbyists of all ages involved in the sharing of designs, programming techniques and other ideas associated with Lego Mindstorms. The line is also sold and used as an educational tool, originally through a partnership between Lego and the MIT Media Laboratory.
One company that got social media woefully wrong is Dell. The company's customer service and product reliability has gone steadily down hill in recent years. Type "Dell tech support" into Google and you'll see thousands of negative posts.
When blogger Jeff Jarvis started blogging about being in "Dell Hell" because of problems with a Dell laptop, the company did not respond. Nor did they respond to my protestations about the lemon desktop they sold me, or to the posts by scores of other bloggers. Eventually, mainstream media and Wall Street took note of Dell's problems, which led to financial losses.
"No comment" is a fine phrase for royalty, criminals and celebrities, but not so great for corporations that have a responsibility to shareholders, clients and consumers.
Finally, Dell launched the Dell One2One blog and proceeded to write about Dell products and ignore the customer service issues. Bloggers pointed out that One2One was actually a porn site, and so Dell changed the name of the much-derided blog to Direct2Dell. And, after scathing reviews by bloggers, lo and behold, Dell finally agreed to address customer service issues and try to make things right.
Almost immediately the exploding laptop battery issue, well, exploded. And because they already had a way to converse with customers -- and their competitors who had to recall their laptop batteries did not -- Dell actually may have come out ahead.
Dell's problems continue, but the company has made great strides and has recently launched the collaborative community Dell Idea Storm [http://www.dellideastorm.com/], which asks customers for their ideas about Dell products and service and then explains how those ideas will be put into effect, and when.
Dell Idea Storm
Whether this move comes too late remains to be seen, but it's surely proof positive that the online community will be heard one way or another.
Another company that took a beating for a fake blog is Sony. The company's "All I Want for Xmas is a PSP" was allegedly written by "Charlie" with YouTube appearances by "Cousin Pete" in an attempt to reach a male demographic by speaking like Ali G on IM and featuring low-resolution rap videos ("holiday hitz!").
The worst part is that the PSP blog keeps up the act, even long after critics publicly flogged Zipatoni, the ad agency behind it, with about 550 hate comments.
Edelman was sanctioned by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and promised to be transparent and honest.
Almost immediately, Edelman was accused of bribing bloggers to write favorable reviews of Microsoft's new Vista operating system. A group of top bloggers were sent top-of-the-line Acer Ferrari notebook computers, retailing for between $1,800 and $2,300, pre-loaded with Windows Vista. Most of the bloggers said nothing about their gifts, but some bragged about their good fortune.
Microsoft/Edelman's lack of transparency was attacked, causing Microsoft to suggest that the bloggers return the laptops or donate them to charity after they tried the software. Uber-blogger Robert Scoble quipped, "Talk about pay-per-post."
Bloggers take notice
Ford made mistakes in social media marketing. Wal-Mart and Sony set out to deliberately deceive the public with fake blogs (flogs) that were supposedly written by customers.
When it comes to blogging, nobody talks the blah-blah-blog talk like Edelman Public Relations. But Edelman has been caught -- twice -- in unethical and entirely dumb fake Wal-Mart blog (flog) scandals. And, immediately, both bloggers and mainstream media outed them.
Wal-Mart's first flog was a folksy blog called Wal-Marting Across America. It featured the journey of Laura and Jim, a couple on their maiden trip in an RV (recreational vehicle), capturing stories of their trip from Las Vegas to Georgia, during which they parked their RV in friendly Wal-Mart's parking lots.
But they weren't customers. They were writers being paid to blog about how nice Wal-Mart is. Earlier, Edelman enlisted right-wing bloggers to whitewash Wal-Mart's tarnished reputation. And later, they were behind two more Wal-Mart flogs.
One fake blog appeared on the homepage of Working Families for Wal-Mart, the allegedly grassroots advocacy group formed by Edelman last December, which is "committed to fostering open and honest dialogue...that conveys the positive contributions of Wal-Mart to working families." The second fake blog was on WFWM's subsidiary site Paid Critics.
Working Families for Wal-Mart
Edelman initially blamed the blogs on junior account executives who took it upon themselves to mount these campaigns. But bloggers jumped on them, including Hugh Macleod at gapingvoid.com, who published this cartoon poking fun at Edelman.
A blogger's interpretation
Ford Motor Company spent a reported $60 million on a multi-media campaign called Ford Bold Moves.
The campaign's promise: Bold Moves puts you at the heart of the story, letting you engage, debate and get involved in what's happening at Ford right now.
Having seen what happened when Chevy Tahoe sponsored an earlier social media campaign and lost control, Ford tried to maintain total control of its message.
Ford's Bold Moves site
Ford's sales are in the toilet; Toyota is whipping its butt; The company is in debt up to its gonads; and its stock has been downgraded to junk. So if there ever was a time to "rip out the BS," this would be it. That's what Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, promised the company will do in Bold Moves. The Future of Ford.
And they did… in a big company, old media, ad-agency's-idea-of-social-media-marketing sort of way. What they produced, in 30 episodes, is an advertorial with little or no solution to Ford's dismal problems. The response? A great big yawn from blogs and mainstream media alike.
Ford Bold Moves veered off its stated bold course and became a very glorified PR effort promoting big engines and fast cars. And community buzz continued its self-congratulatory path. It surely wasn't the promised paradigm shift to transparency or customer involvement.
Why spend all this money on Bold Moves? Why not just ask your customers, "What are your suggestions for turning Ford around?"
And then listen, respond and change. Rinse, repeat.