Sell by fear and you generate dread

Dec 8, 2012 | Digital reinvention

I recently read an article in a leading business magazine about the perils of the supposedly brave new world of social media. Whilst the main article was interesting in itself, what grabbed my attention was a relatively small complementary piece running immediately beneath it. Written from a legal perspective (by a lawyer) it explored in some detail the many legal dangers awaiting the intrepid brand manager.

Neither article was particularly unusual in that there is a growing body of writing covering social web topics from the marketing and legal perspectives. I guess that’s the point.

There is an emerging polarity in the way that brands are being “sold” social media. Sure, in any emerging media there will always be extremes. Zealots, like those espousing the virtues of the internet in the late ‘90s, will inevitably ring in yet another new order and tell established marketers that everything they know is wrong.

Despite the naivety of this approach, it is infinitely preferable to the zealot’s evil twin who instills paranoia and fear.

Unfortunately, it is the latter voice that seems to be scripting the approaches of a number of companies extolling the virtues of brand monitoring tools.

There is an inherent risk with this approach. It focuses attention upon tools rather than outcomes. Brand monitoring often falls victim to this. Whilst it forms part of a broader strategy, monitoring the “social conversation” is not an end unto itself.

There is a vast difference between hearing your smoke alarm go off and taking action to put out the fire.

The latter requires engagement. The problem with a fear-driven approach is that it treats monitoring purely as a defensive tool and therefore encourages brands to simply find new ways to be evasive, protective and guarded. This conventional PR lock-down thinking is the antithesis of what the social ethos is about – and it gets brands into trouble.

Implicit in this approach also is the suggestion that involvement in social media (in one form or another) is some sort of optional extra to a brand’s communications plan. I remember having the same conversation in 2000 when clients were attempting to do cost benefit analysis on the value that a website might add to their business.

The thing about social media is that it is just that – “media”. It is not dependent upon your brand’s participation. It exists regardless of whether you believe in it. The information that it conveys about your brand is not dependent upon your approval.

Lets face it, there have always been discussions about your brand – good and bad. Previously, disgruntled customers would flame your brand on a niche forum or burn you on their website. Typically the spread was relatively limited. It’s about the speed with which things can turn.

Things have changed – there is a new level of connectedness. Social media provides a broadcast method that wasn’t there before. As such it amplifies and spreads news about your brand from consumer to consumer and between social networks with a new speed. But its not just about bad news. It is important to remember that a well planned and resourced social media presence provides a platform for a brand to create positive interactions and experiences.

Brand monitoring should be part of a positive, broader strategy that has engagement and a commitment to transparent communication at its core. A brand’s entry to the social environment should not be driven by fear but by a genuine desire to understand the conversations and disposition of its customers and to enter into conversation with customers in new ways.

If anything, I would like to think that it may mark a subtle shift in thinking whereby brands think more about communicating with – rather than marketing to- their customers.