Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 10, 2011 3:31 PM

The Biggest Mistake Brands Make When It Comes To Social Media

What is the biggest mistake that brands make when it comes to Social Media?

Without question, this is the number one question I get asked in interviews, at speaking events and at roundtable forums (in fact, it happened today during a panel conversation for Connected For Business Magazine). You can shore up the many little instances, fumbles, mistakes and blunders into this one concept: The Social Contract. Prior to these Social Media channels, brands had a social contract with the media (for the most part, this social contract still exists, to this day) that worked/works like this: Something happens and the brand has a PR crisis on their hands. They are called to task by the media. The brand formulates a strategy and a plan, trains the media spokesperson from within the organization and then comes out publicly with a response - which is typically done in the formats of interviews, press releases and a press conference). From there, the media formulates their take (they may even go back to the company to ask for clarification or more information) and then the information gets disseminated to the public through these mass media channels. During this time, the company rarely interfaces with individuals from the public. They communicate through their chosen media platforms. There is an unwritten social contract between businesses and the media - an agreed upon process of response and how it all comes together. This isn't done to slant the story, it's just the way the "Gods of Production," as Jay Rosen calls them, works.

People - like you and I - don't have a social contract with brands and this is tripping them up.

The mistakes that happen in Social Media (everything from United breaks guitars to Dell Hell) all demonstrate that people do not act in accordance to the way that trained and professional journalists act, and that brands can't interact with individuals with the same kind of language, posture and social contract that they have with the mass media. The biggest mistake that brands make is thinking that they can act, respond and communicate with these individuals as if they are speaking to a journalist.

It's not just in the communications... it's the marketing to.

When brands fail at Social Media (and then ask "why?"), one look at most of their "marketing efforts" reveals a broadcasting and/or advertising posture that is not only narcissistic but self-serving. The platforms already exist for advertising, so if a brand is leveraging a Facebook page, YouTube videos or a Blog to speak to individuals in the same way that they have traditionally developed a magazine or television ad, it's missing the point (and opportunity) as well. Don't get me wrong, many brands are getting results from these types of tactics, but it tends to be the brands that are leveraging the power of their ad budgets to both interrupt and clamor the consumer's online engagement experience. That not Social Media marketing... that's advertising in Social Media channels and there's a big difference between the two.

It's a mindset.

Brands can overcome the mistake of following the traditional media social contract in one simple move: real interactions between real human beings. Leverage the actual people within the organization to speak to people as the people that they are. This is driven by a mindset of compassion and care by the brand to build loyalty over a customer service mandate that sounds and reads as if it's being read out of a manual or a script. While the move is simple, the ability for the organization to change is hard. The mindset is not a personal or an individual one, it's groupthink that permeates an organization and that is deadlocked by the legal department. See, individuals don't have these issues, so they tweet, Blog and update their status' with whatever is on their minds and - when it's something negative about a brand - the brand tends to react as if there is that implied social contract.

It's nothing new.

Social Media has been banging this drum of human interaction for over a decade now (need I remind us that The Cluetrain Manifesto is nearly twelve years old?). This kind of talk was happening long before this past decade entered the fray (and all of the technology and connectivity that came along with it). In the end, it's not really a "mistake" that brands are making when it comes to Social Media. It's actually a mistake that brands are making at a culture level (the DNA of the modern organization). The good news is that it's not terminal. This is a reversible disease.

It makes you wonder why after all of the in-market proof, brands still struggle with it?

By Mitch Joel


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