Social networks, as the name says, are "social," and thus subject to the shifts in behaviors, norms, and attitudes that affect any group of people. There are both constant negative and positive streams surging through these networks that can change minds and re-mold opinions.
Organizations attempting to harness the power of social networks need to be aware and prepare for the ways social networks -- which can be notoriously fickle -- can quickly impact brand perception, or sow fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Boris Pluskowski in a recent post, raises the possibility that some companies may attempt to manipulate social networks to undermine competitors. In considering this really dark side of social networking, there is a possibility that competitors may purposely attempt to plant "social viruses" to attack or convert the social networks of competitors. Imagine one company proliferating negative statements and accusations about a competitor's products and services within a network. It happens in sales circles all the time, right?
Yes, social networks have innate self-policing and self-editing capabilities to put the kibosh on such behavior, but still, damage can be done in the meantime. And, unlike a situation in which a sales representative disses a competitor's product in the privacy of a customer's office, the diss goes viral across the globe.
Pluskowski references the work of James Fowler, co-author of Connected, who demonstrates the powerful influence social networks have on attitudes and behavior. ("Your colleague's husband's sister can make you fat, even if you don't know her. A happy neighbor has more impact on your happiness than a happy spouse.")
"I can certainly envision ways in which companies could manipulate a few key individuals to enable them to corrupt a competitor’s user community," Pluskowski explains. "Sowing seeds of discontent, and setting up the consumers to be virally vulnerable to the possibility of alternative realities. Could we then be on the verge of a new weapon in the corporate strategic arsenal?"
The best defense against such lowly tactics to to develop a strong, social virus-resistant social network. Pluskowski provides this advice:
"Engender a strong goodwill and feeling within your community, and you’ll find that it’ll be resistant to negative vibes... Cross your community though, and that bad feeling will spread far and wide like wildfire."
The iPhone 4 is a great example of a community resistant to negative vibes, Boris illustrates: "Despite all its difficulties and problems, people are still buying it –- not because it’s that much of a better phone than anything else on the market (nor even its previous version the 3GS) –- but rather because Apple’s conditioned its community to be resistant to negative viruses by ensuring that they not only respond, but also try to over-satisfy the customer whenever possible. As a result, the community of Apple buyers continues strong, and continues to grow in number."
Pluskowski also recommends that organizations nurture a new skillset – that of the "social doctor, able to diagnose potential viruses prior to them taking effect and injecting the corporate social world with the virtual equivalent of vitamins to re-enforce it."
Business leaders also need to be eternally vigilant about showing sensitivity and concern for customer communities, Boris adds. Unfortunately, this sensitivity and concern "is currently alien to the majority of companies who still treat their social networks as a sales and marketing tool rather than a living, breathing symbiotic organism."
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com