The downside of social media

I received this link in my Twitter feed this morning from Ronald Yau (@RonaldYau), a social media and marketing consultant in New York. The author, Mashable’s Stephanie Marcus, notes the risks of social media and how to handle them (and how not to handle them).

“For all the praise that brand advertisers have for social media, they must be aware that it’s very much a double-edged sword. And for all the free marketing, advertising and brand promotion via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and other platforms used to help build an identity and relationship with your customers, it can just as quickly turn on you and your brand.

Social media disasters occur for a number of reasons, the first being that your company probably messed up. It may not have been intentional, but something, somewhere down the line, went wrong enough for someone to complain and was wrong enough for others to vocalizing that complaint en masse. One mistake is all it takes for social media to turn against your brand.

No one is perfect and you can’t expect to please everyone all the time, so the best trick is to be prepared for how to handle things if your company finds itself under attack in the social realm.”

Marcus mentions three specific examples in her piece. But this phenomenon goes beyond what can happen when your company screws up. Social Media, and its ability to make a seemingly obscure item go viral almost instantaneously, also means that even an innocent message can blow up in your face if you miscalculate how your publics will react to it.

Take the “Keffiyeh Kerfuffle” incident in 2008. Dunkin Donuts ran a series of ads early that year featuring Rachael Ray wearing a black and white patterned scarf. Conservative bloggers, most notably Michelle Malkin, noted that this scarf looked like the keffiyeh, a scarf worn by Palestinian men and a clothing item seen at many anti-Israel rallies. This led to a sudden and massive outcry in the blogosphere that Dunkin Donuts supported the Palestinians and were anti-Israel, a rather unpopular position in a country that is strongly pro-Israel. Whether or not Dunkin Donuts is pro-Palestine or pro-Israel is irrelevant. The swift and hostile reaction generated by those bloggers forced Dunkin Donuts to redo the ad campaign without the scarf.

Social Media should definitely be a part of a company’s marketing mix, though the exact extent depends on what you’re selling and who you’re trying to reach. But you need to remember that while it can spread good news quickly, it can also spread bad news just as quickly. A seemingly minor incident can become a full-fledged PR disaster if the offended party has a popular blog or a lot of followers on Twitter.

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About Joshua Brett
I am a native of Chicago, but have lived on the East Coast for almost 20 years. After starting my career as a news reporter, I moved into healthcare marketing, first with a small hospital, then with a small pharmaceutical development company and now with a chain of businesses that are working to improve access to the health care system. In May 2011, I completed my Masters Degree in Communication Management at Temple University, and I enjoy helping businesses, particularly healthcare ones, identify, tell and leverage their stories to achieve their business goals. My related interests are in messaging and framing in politics and in the use of social media platforms (including blogs similar to this one) by the healthcare industry to engage patients directly, drive them to healthcare providers and make them more educated consumers when they do so. Unlike my previous, disorganized, scattershot attempt at blogging, I hope to make this attempt more focused. We'll see what happens.

2 Responses to The downside of social media

  1. Krista says:

    Great analysis and good reminder of the risks involved with user-generated content in social media. Companies need to remember there is relatively small degree of control for their messages, especially in the quick-fire pace of social media. But it shouldn’t discourage them from connecting with customers or stakeholders who will just as easily embrace their brands or products. It just means those companies (and their agencies) who engage in social media need to be on their toes!

    • jdb316 says:

      Definitely agree, Krista. And the control issue is one of the biggest obstacles, particularly in heavily regulated fields like health care and pharma, to the embracing of this tool. But it definitely needs to be incorporated, though again the exact extent depends on who your customers are.

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