* Jennifer Leggio is on vacation
Guest editorial by Don MacVittie
Imagine a store with a string of expletives on a sign out front next to another storefront with risque propositions on its sign, and a third with political slogans for one party or the other. Now imagine the street filled with Christmas shoppers, and consider what happens if the other side of the street has stores advertising their wares in the normal manner.
The first store would be passed up by many people because it was offensive, the second would offend parents for subjecting their children to the signs, and truly half of the people would be less likely to enter the third because the political slogans didn't match their world-view.
Meanwhile, the other side of the street is drawing in people who want the products advertised.
What, exactly, is different between this scenario and social media? Nothing important, because, as you might notice, the important bits of the above description deal with the reactions of people, not with the stores themselves.
When something like social media comes along and shakes the very foundations of a long-held industry - in this case marketing and PR - we tend to think that everything has changed. Of course it has not, because people do not. The trap of social media is that, hiding behind the perception of anonymity, larger numbers of people are willing to be extreme, so it may even appear that your outrageous blog posts are popular.
But it's not about mouse clicks or number of links to your site, even though the entire Internet is obsessed with those numbers. It is about how your business is perceived. More importantly, it is about how your business is perceived by likely customers. You can't know who your likely customers are online - how many offended commenters using the #motrinmoms Twitter tag ever actually bought Motrin or have a baby? There is absolutely no way to know.
An interesting side effect of Internet time is that the Motrin problem may well have flared and burned out in a weekend, when it would have taken word of mouth and months for the same offense to work out without the Internet, and mothers who were offended, left with no other outlet, may well have skipped buying Motrin that won't now because they felt they had the ability to have their say. Only McNeil, the makers of Motrin, can say for certain, but they are doing what I would have recommended, handling it the same way they always would have, apologizing and moving on.
In general, society doesn't change rapidly. People's views on topics that seem as simple to us as racial equality took 100 years to go from slavery to true equality. That's not a fluke, generation by generation things change, not week by week as some on the Internet wrongly assume. Instant communication has no doubt increased the rate of change, but it is still much slower than Internet time. So before you ditch your media relations department and turn your legions loose on Wordpress and Twitter, consider what those people are going to say and how they're going to say it. Because your business may count on getting it right.
In short, your business needs marketing. Not some new "say whatever you like" game of all your employees blogging, but a marketing plan that pays attention to your potential customers. If your business is in Kosher foods, having an employee or two out blogging about their religion might be worthwhile, if you are running most businesses though, what possible gain could come of such content? The answer is the risks are much greater than the rewards. Use your marketing and PR departments to guide those you choose to blog in their commentary. People like to feel that they know bloggers, but that is a double edged sword, for to know - particularly online - is not necessarily to like. Teach people what is acceptable, have standards and guidelines, and even keep them abreast of your marketing efforts. Blogs aren't a direct marketing tool, but they shouldn't ignore the marketing calendar either.
And before you hire an outside firm that claims "We get social media", ask for sites and blogs they've helped shape. If you read those sites and/or blogs and come away slightly offended, don't assume you don't "Get the market", think about it. Because no matter what the medium, in the end people are people, and en-masse they act in predictable ways. Just ask anyone who continued to rant about US election issues after November 4th - certainly they felt the bite as people quit listening because America always heaves a collective sigh of relief after a presidential election, and some weren't willing to let go online this year. Much to their chagrin, they were reminded that following an online personality is a choice. A choice that is very easy to change.
It is clear that social media is more permissive about discussing your personal life than other genres of business communications were, but where do you draw the line? Obviously proselytizing about your religion or discussing your intimate life on your business blog are out, but beyond that things aren’t as clear as they used to be. Even those two topics might find businesses where they are acceptable conversation points – say a business aimed at a particular religion, or someone who markets lingerie, for example. So what can you say and how do you figure it out – or more to the point, what should you avoid saying and how can you figure it out?
Don MacVittie is a Strategic Architect at F5 Networks' DevCentral where he specializes in Social Media Content for IT staff. He has held most positions in IT and has written hundreds of articles and published several books - most with his wife Lori.