None of that is to say there aren’t measures that a marketer can take toward protecting itself. So-called social media “listening tools” from the likes of Radian6, Visible Technologies and Crimson Hexagon can help a brand and its agencies monitor Internet chatter, gauge sentiments around a brand and alert a brand when a storm is brewing.
Companies also should staff up to better manage messages and feedback and design guidelines for when to assemble a crisis-response team, says David Armano, evp of global innovation and integration at Edelman’s digital practice.
Scenario mapping—or designing flowcharts outlining recommended plans of action in the case of a social media mishap—is another aid. “All these things are really just preparedness tools,” Armano says.
The bottom line: Responding to critics via social media platforms requires corporations—those slow-to-change, conservative behemoths—to adjust according to a new media world order.
“A lot of what causes a crisis or an issue hasn’t changed. Companies have problems. They make mistakes sometimes,” says Armano. “Social is disruptive because it amplifies these things and adds a speed and velocity to them that we haven’t seen before. A lot of brands are grappling with dealing with that because they’re not prepared.”
Getting clients up to tempo remains a particular pain point for agencies. “Part of the challenge for agencies is working with brands that aren’t necessarily structured to deal with some of the unexpected consumer responses that are happening in real time, so you can effectively sway the conversations in the right way,” says Matt Britton, founder and CEO of social media shop Mr. Youth.
At the same time, there’s a danger in moving too quickly. “Part of succeeding in this new, fast-paced media universe is taking chances and experimenting because there’s another way to fail in all this, and that’s to be totally silent, totally conservative and miss opportunities,” says Copeland.
Adds Forrester’s Bernoff: “The amount of advertising clutter is at record levels. The daring ad that breaks through it is the one that’s at most risk for annoying people.”
A fundamental understanding of the power balance between marketer and consumer that social media has wrought is a key first step on the part of top executives, experts say.
“Even just having a basic page on Facebook is a game changer because it’s not just a marketing channel, it’s a communications ecosystem,” says Armano.
That means brands must not only prepare themselves for but also be comfortable with a certain amount of dissent. No matter how well a PR team might be prepared for a crisis, a marketer must respect the new reality, which the consumer is driving. Otherwise, says Armano, “You can still have someone senior at an organization hear about a [consumer’s] Facebook post and say, ‘We need to delete that.’”
Any brand manager who might have a notion to censor user comments would do well to familiarize himself with the ChapStick effect. In October, the baffled brand landed at the center of a particularly nasty dustup, one sparked by a relatively innocuous ad featuring a woman bending over a couch in search of her missing lip balm. The controversy only happened after ChapStick attempted to scrub critical reactions from its Facebook page—this, despite the ad urging those very customers to “Be heard” on its Facebook page.
“A lot of people judged [the ad] to be sexist because of the position she was in,” recalls David Jones, global CEO of Havas and author of Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business Is Better Business. “Whether it was or it wasn’t is less the point. The point is after having asked people to come join the conversation on Facebook, ChapStick then started deleting the posts…It doesn’t take a genius to work out that that’s probably not going to go down too well.”
The first commandment in the Marketing Via Social Media Bible may be, as it happens, “Do not censor.”
Says Copeland: “Deleting your detractors is one of the worst things you can do. It riles them up all the more…You just give them lots of ammunition, and the folks who want to weigh in on your behalf aren’t going to.”
On the other hand, those weighing in on a marketer’s behalf may be that marketer’s greatest asset. “The best way brands can deal with negative social media issues is to have their consumers fight the battle for them,” says Mr. Youth’s Britton.
Platforms such as Crowdtap, which Mr. Youth initially funded and incubated, help brands cultivate positive relationships with their most loyal and influential consumers. Through these tools, marketers give consumers rewards such as exclusive access to content or products in exchange for promoting the brand to friends or answering surveys. A brand can even use the technology to test a risky ad on a small group of consumers before broadcasting it widely.
By using tools like Crowdtap, brands are also developing ties with advocates they can mobilize to counter the digital howls of critics. Without them, Britton argues, marketers “are going into a battle without ground troops.”