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Hands on or hands off? The social media balancing act

Posted by: Andy Wright on March 24, 2010

Social media can be, in many ways, a dream come true.  What brand manager wouldn’t be happy if their brand was so loved that consumers marketed it themselves – something we’ve seen with Nick Haley’s iPod Touch ad and blogs like J. Crew Aficionada?

Indeed, in recent years, we’ve seen brand managers attempt to harness the power of social media by reaching out to natural brand ambassadors and embracing user generated content through crowdsourcing or other means. But as many are realizing, while crowdsourcing can be great (and often times, budget friendly), it comes with its own set of rules. In these types of campaigns, it is the brand manager’s job to give users the tools and opportunities to meet and come together. However, if there’s an attempt to drive them to action or exercise too much control, brands risk major backlash.

Case 1: Vegemite Sets Itself Up To Fail
Vegemite so nearly got it right when it launched a contest to uncover a new name for an upcoming product launch of a cream cheese and Vegemite variant. A brand so loved (and hated) in Australia that thousands of people rose to the challenge.

Facebook groups were created promoting names that like-minded fans agreed with. Nearly 50,000 names were submitted to the Vegemite website. Vegemite had successfully engaged an enormously loyal fan base.

But then, Vegemite made a major misstep when it chose the name iSnack 2.0, without polling its audience. Yes, it was on the list of crowdsourced names. However, rather than have users select from a list of five top crowdsourced names to whittle down the favourite or investigate which names appeared to have the most fans, they picked one that proved to be hugely unpopular.

Once loyal fans created dozens of Facebook groups and Twitter streams that explained why they felt they’d been slapped in the face. The outrage extended into the real world as t-shirts were made and supporters of the anti-iSnack movement wore them as a statement.

Vegemite learned the hard way that you can’t go halfway – if you are going to ask your customers to engage with your brand on such an intense level, you need to listen to what they have to say and really give them what they want. Still, it learned from its error.  Taking the negative backlash as a sign to take back the name, it attempted to repair the damage by asking users to vote on a new name.

Case 2: Chevrolet U-Turns Negative Feedback Into Positive Product
While fear of the negative (or negative backlash) is what prevents many brands from touching crowdsourcing, as Chevrolet demonstrated, sometimes negativity can be made into a positive.

In 2005 Chevrolet invited consumers to create ads for its SUV The Tahoe. The campaign drew 30,000 entries in four weeks. While the majority of ads were positive, Chevrolet received some negatives ones as well, criticizing the SUV’s contribution to global warming, social irresponsibility, and the war in Iraq.  Rather than taking them down, however, Chevrolet allowed them to stay posted.

Then, it did something interesting – it responded to the negative ads on its corporate blog. Rather than viewing the event as a chaotic mess, Chevy said it welcomed the opportunity to clarify the facts regarding fuel economy and consumer choice.  Then, addressing consumers’ concerns, Chevrolet created the 2008 Tahoe Hybrid, which was named Green Car Journal’s 2008 Green Car of the Year.

What could have been an embarrassing failure turned into a market research opportunity.  Chevrolet was able to listen to its customers and give them what they want.

Case 3: Brands sit back and let the users do the work
Meanwhile, although crowdsourcing allows brands to maintain some control of what is being said about their brand, in the end, truly user generated social media events are most effective at enhancing your brand.

Sports team fans, for example, have set up post-match events, chants, and demonstrations on Facebook and blogs, with a passion and zeal that likely could never be matched by a brand manager. Team Conan blitzed the Internet through Facebook and other social media channels resulting in street protests voicing their support and displeasure at the removal of Conan O’Brien as Tonight Show host. Michael Jackson’s death sparked Flash mobs all over the world. Town Holler, created by two Foursquare fans (not employees), has helped generate an overwhelming interest in Foursquare and captured the attention of already loyal fans.

While user generated social media events mean less control, ultimately they carry the most potency because they are as authentic as it gets. While you may not be able to predict whether they will happen, the more your brand is aligned with your customers’ belief and values, the more likely you are to capture loyal brand ambassadors.

Striking the right balance
Inviting your audience to participate in your brand through social media requires a certain kind of hands on/hands off balance. While the online space allows for engagement at a deeper and more creative level, it requires brands to be flexible, courageous, transparent, and open to what their customers say and deliver.  It’s about listening, being present in the conversation, responding and providing food for thought.  It is not about censoring customers or taking up a solely defensive position. Remember, your customers aren’t stupid, and word of mouth is the most powerful influencer on earth – now more than ever since it spreads like wildfire online. So, while you should cultivate brand ambassadors in your customers (they can be great advocates and sources of inspiration) never abuse the relationship. Customers are going to catch on, and catch you off guard.

This post is the sixth in a series called That’s Debatable: Social Media Edition – posts designed around oft-debated topics in our community, meant to spark conversation and gather different perspectives. Learn more about That’s Debatable, and take our social media survey.


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