Human botnets and Twitnets - the problem with commercial social media

The problem with social media is that if you try to manipulate it for marketing purposes it can blow up in your face and bite you in the butt (mashup metaphor #32).Take a look at the Procter and Gamble experiment to sell "Tide" t-shirts.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

The problem with social media is that if you try to manipulate it for marketing purposes it can blow up in your face and bite you in the butt (mashup metaphor #32).

Take a look at the Procter and Gamble experiment to sell "Tide" t-shirts. Brian Morrissey, Digital Editor at Adweek describes what happened:

This is what was going on last night at the P&G Digital Hack Night, when P&G got a bunch of agency types, media execs and others to troop to Cincy to perform for it. The idea: use social media to get people to buy Tide t-shirts –- some of the proceeds going to Feed America -- with an emphasis on "use." It was cooked up as a marketing exercise for the CPG giant’s army of brand managers to see the true power of social media.

@bmorrissey: The feel-good social marketing bribe

P&G asked people to use a hashtag on Twitter so that they could follow how this campaign developed and then develop marketing methods for using Twitter and other social media to promote hundreds of everyday products.

How did it go? More than 2,000 shirts were sold at $20 each by about 150 "media and marketing people."

Mr Morrissey reports: "This was a marketing exercise, nothing more, yet I wonder if it’s going in the wrong direction."

A lot of people agree. Nick, commenter on @bmorrissey wrote:

150 determined salespeople sold 2000 shirts in four hours? That's 13 each. I've seen better results from bake sales.

Further, I can only imagine most T-shirt buyers will feel suckered pretty quickly, knowing their interest and $20 was converted into a case study for the social media minds they diligently pander to.

But the bigger issue, for me, is the education issue. Clients still don't understand the fundamentals of digital. I hear it time and time again from frustrated companies. It's great P&G wants to help employees understand. But, as a learning exercise, you put 40 invitees into crisis mode to sell T-shirts for four hours? Is frenzied Tweeting the behavior you want to impress on clients as how you work for them?

At least everyone gets to post self-congratulatory blog entries about it.

Foremski's Take:

This is the conundrum facing PR and marketing people on social media. There are lots of PR and marketing gurus on social media. They do very well and they have lots of friends and followers. And they do well because they give out a lot of value. They give out lots of tips and links to information that helps others do their job.

But what happens if you try to convert that audience into an army of followers who are retweeting and blogging commercial messages on the behalf of paying clients? It's like the hackers that create botnets of thousands of infected PCs and then use them to broadcast millions of spam messages. Can you create a human botnet army? Or a Twitnet army?

No you can't, it won't work. And so here we have the conundrum of social media. Yes, you can rapidly gain a large number of "friends" and build a large Twitter following. But if you try to to sell access to that network to commercial enterprises you will run into trouble.

These days many PR firms advise their clients to hire them to build a large Facebook friends or Twitter following. This is not good advice, imho.

Corporations might have the status of an individual person in US law, such as freedom of speech, but in a social media context they will be seen as being in it for themselves with little to share except coupons and discount codes. That's value enough but it's not much more than is already available.

There is clearly value in creating a personal brand in social media but you can only do it by providing lots of value, and do it consistently. You cannot buy a personal brand. So what is the future for commercial brands in social media? What is the future for corporations wanting to buy a social presence?

For example, on Facebook, Seagate asked me to be its friend, to join its fan page etc. It might work if it was Hugo Boss but I'm pretty sure I don't want a social relationship with my hard drive. And I'm pretty sure other people feel the same way.

Commercial brands have to tread carefully in the social media space because missteps get magnified tremendously. I wonder how much the P&G experiment has left a sour, soapy taste in the mouths of many people.

(Hat tip to Gumshoo) Here is a Gumshoo 'toon.'

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