When Silence Can Be Golden

It used to seem as if brands were giants and that big brand marketing made them that way. It’s weird how now marketers are trying to be our friends, like they’re nothing but digital neighbors. Isn’t this the Internet’s fault? It’s strange to see a big, solid brand trying to “figure out Twitter” because Twitter seems so . . . small.

Maybe some brands shouldn’t be conversational. Maybe most shouldn’t.

Social media was not made for brands. Lots of other stuff on the Internet was, but not Facebook and not Twitter.

When the banner ad was invented, it was devised to be the interactive version of a print ad. It fits in conveniently into a marketing plan and it’s not an extraordinary leap to go from a clever print ad to a clever interactive ad. Brand sites and microsites naturally evolved from brochures and magazines.

But social media evolved from conversations. It’s the digital version of a bunch of people talking and being friends, and actually poking someone in the shoulder with a finger when they want to get someone’s attention. The precedent is not an old form of media, it’s a form of behavior. So where does a brand really fit in?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely in favor of creative uses of new technology. If you come up with a great idea for a brand on Facebook, and there sure have been some, that’s awesome. Most brands, if they want to be big and iconic, damn well better do some big iconic things to get attention, and should look at social media as the new watercooler. It’s a way to pay attention to what people are saying about you, which means you can listen and then address problems. Maybe there’s a great new campaign format that usurps the UGC/contest metaphor and involves businesses quietly listening to their customers and then doing something really interesting in response to that. But that means successful social media is not just a PR stunt — it’s using it to transform your business and communications.

What I’m talking about is the general feeling that there’s something going on in social media that brands absolutely must join in on — or else risk losing customers.

If a brand is in the hospitality/service category, for instance, then it’s already talking to its customers. A hotel is already asking people how their stay was or if they want more pillows. It’s pretty straightforward for a hotel to figure out that it can use Twitter for scalable customer service. If a brand is in the flat-packed products category where instructions are part of the package, it can use social media to broadcast useful conversations about assembly or where to get a replacement screw.

It gets harder, though, when a business is not really conversational — if all a company manufactures, say, is a product and some marketing to make the product cool. In that case, it’s difficult to figure out a natural personality on the social Web. And that’s the trick: It has to be natural. It’s not a good medium for artifice or mistakes.
So, what’s the alternative? What if a brand can’t figure out how to be a great friend to its customers? Well, if it’s a successful brand, it needs to look at what it did before social media. Maybe it didn’t always dive in to other people’s culture — it made its own. Maybe it had a big voice on television and/or on the radio that nobody else had access to, and it shouted loudly.

I know — consumers are in control. Brands feel as if they must dive right in to social media and participate. But some do hold back. And the hesitation is understandable because maybe they know deep down they shouldn’t dive in — or need to consider in what ways they want to. Maybe the brand is not a follower, maybe it doesn’t have to check off that box of “chatting with customers.” Maybe it’s a leader and is just getting confused by this being, for the moment, the age of following.