Last week I wrote a piece arguing that if the objective of our campaigns is to stimulate consumer participation (and amplification of our message via social media), the effort that we ask of them must be proportionate to the reward we offer in return. The key question is, how can brands get consumers working on their behalf in a way that also works on their behalf?
Image by David Mejias
The easiest answer to this question is: would I be prepared to participate in the scheme we’re dreaming up or would I be worried about looking like a dick in front of my friends? This may sound blindingly obvious but think about it next time you’re in a brainstorm dreaming up new ways in which consumers will help you spread the word about your socks, light-bulbs, detergent (I certainly wish I’d had it written on my hand in a few).
Key to this is understanding how and why people use social networks in the first place. In many instances, social networks are about providing people with a platform to ‘sell’ themselves. An opportunity to reveal their wit, taste, knowledge, ahead-of-the-curve-ness… via their status updates, comments and wall-posts; the things they ‘like’ or tweet, the places they check-in, the photos and videos they share. In doing so, they are creating value, ‘selling’ themselves to existing and potential friends and followers, augmenting (or even creating) real-world relationships.
As a recent SDSU study finds, 57% of young people believe their generation uses social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking”. And they have enough on their plates with self-promotion without having to worry about promotion brands as well.
Henrik Werdelin argues that ‘virality is about making your users look awesome in front of their friends’ and suggests that we should be asking ourselves: “How will the message I want spread make my audience look cool or clever?” providing a series of examples:
1. Make them show they are early adopters. Make users feel important by giving them something to say about themselves, e.g. I am a user of this new cool software – it’s still in closed beta – but I can try to get you an invite.
2. Make them seem funny or interesting. When adding a ‘tell/invite a friend’ into your sign-up flow be sure to spend extra time making your invite email interesting. You are essentially the ghost-writer for your users. Make them sound funny or interesting – they will want to share your story with more people.
3. Allow people to add their personal touch to your story. Users are more likely to spread stories that have their own personal touch. So leave room for them to add their fingerprint to your narrative easily. I guess my best example is to always allow for a bit of space when you do tweets – so people can add their own comment to your narrative. By doing that, you allow your audience to become co-senders. If that fails, then piggyback your message on to something entertaining, as a last resort, in case there is no other way to make the message itself cool to communicate. Just think of how OfficeMax have made you Elfyourself.com
4. Make people better storytellers by giving them templates of ‘guide them’. Facebook’s initial status update did this delicately by adding the ‘Henrik is…’ to each update. This forced users to write a certain type of update and allowed them to be more creative by working within the template of the ‘Henrik is…’ template. A new trend is to give people personal information about themselves to share via Behaviour Generated Content generation.
Whilst marketers may be tempted to employ old-media tactics to broadcast to the huge audiences engaged in social networks, it is only by understanding the reason that these people are so engaged and adding value to their experience that we can harness these huge numbers.
The other option of course is to buy their dignity by offering a reward so great that they will happily sell-out their hard-earned reputations. Ben Southall, now the recipient of the best job in the world waged a social media campaign that his friends must have got bored of quicker than a Farmville addiction in order to secure it.
Still, there may be hope for him. In an interview last week, Eric Schmidt called for people to be given the opportunity to change their names in order to escape their embarrassing social media pasts (in what Colbert brilliantly referred to as Ctrl-Self-Delete). In addition to people fleeing from videos of them rapping or photos of them downing shots, this may also provide them relief from the damage that ‘liking’ a butter brand or changing their profile picture for a bank in a moment of rashness did to their carefully-constructed reputations.
Over the last couple of years, it is highly likely that you have sat through some or other version of the what-we-as-marketers-can-learn-from-Obama’s-presidential-campaignpresentation. In fact There was a period in late 2008, early 2009 when everyone who worked in social media was claiming involvement in the campaign and whatever problem your brand faced, Obama was the answer. I have personally learned how Obama would launch a small car, a mobile phone and a new retail concept (as if he wasn’t busy enough).
And what a case study. An unknown and un-fancied brand identifies a clear, simple and compelling proposition and presents it in highly engaging and emotive terms, inspiring people (whether cultural influencers like Will.i.am and Shepherd Fairey or local boosters) to spread the message on its behalf within their social networks (both real and virtual). This refreshing decentralization of the message was key, the confidence to relax constraints and enable millions of people to work on behalf of the campaign rather than seeking to control the message at every touch-point.
Which all makes the Shirley Sherrod episode even more surprising. Suddenly the politician who mastered the blogosphere is caught out by a malicious blogger. In an attempt to highlight what he saw as ‘reverse racism’ within the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), right wing blogger Andrew Breitbart released a misleadingly edited version of a speech made by Ms. Sherrod portraying her as a racist while the unedited version of the speech demonstrated that this was not the case. But by the time the truth came out it was too late – Shirley Sherrod had already been fired.
Leaving aside the tawdry political implications – an administration which failed to consider all the facts and presumed one of its own guilty until proven innocent, a black president unprepared to engage in any debate about race, commentators more interested in point-scoring than telling the truth… this episode also provides new lessons for marketers.
Get the facts: Things move quickly online but getting the facts is essential. The Obama administration may have attracted criticism for acting slowly and appearing indecisive had it taken time to ascertain what was happening but at least it could have made the correct decision. The same is true for brands who must look into potentially damaging things posted about them online before taking action.
Run your own race (no pun intended): Everyone with an opinion (however ill-informed) now has a platform to air it and the relative anonyminity afforded by the internet means that people often post things about brands which are biased or even malicious. But this shouldn’t dictate brand strategy. Just as you can’t control everything posted about your brand, neither can your ‘enemies’. The internet (thanks to its scale and accessibility) is good at exposing the facts, so if weight of cumulative opinion is positive, then you’re probably on the right track and shouldn’t panic about the inevitable criticism you’ll receive from a minority. The majority of people in the US do not think that the Obama administration is ‘reverse racist’ but they made the mistake of listening to a vocal minority which ended up dictating policy in a sensitive area.
Embrace the debate: Just as the internet provides individuals with a real-time opportunity to share their opinions about brands, this opportunity extends to brands as well. Rather than ignoring the debate (like Toyota did initially) or trying to shut it down (like Trafigura), calmly and appropriately engaging in it provides and opportunity to influence people. Handled properly, being unfairly attacked is an opportunity to undermine your detractors and rally your advocates*. Without the initial attack, this opportunity does not present itself. The Obama administration had the opportunity to rally its supporters ahead of the November mid-terms by exposing the petty politicking of its opponents who made a vicious personal attack on an innocent public servant. Instead, the sacking of Ms. Sherrod was a de facto endorsement of its opponent’s position, attracting the ire of the people it hopes to engage.
What the Obama administration appears to have forgotten in this instance is that the direct and real-time dialogue enabled by the internet is not just a tool for fundraising or distributing videos of speeches that can be used or ignored at will. It is a technology that has fundamentally and irreversibly changed the way in which people engage with one-another, governments, brands and everything else and something that must be factored into every move.
*I’m not suggesting that the treatment of Toyota and Trafigura was unfair but that their handling of appropriate criticism made a bad situation worse.