This is the third installment of a series of posts in which I will present the 10 Principles of the #Social Survival Manifesto for your comments. Discussed here is the third Principle, the irksome fact that corporate messaging online is always subject to public alteration. Like the previous second Principle, all about the frustrating humility that social media requires of all participants, this third Principle bothers the heck out of folks in Marketing and Corporate Communications.

At the head offices of corporations and large institutions, one still frequently comes across the best social media best practiceslaid plans for messaging that ‘tells the brand’s story’ or educates clients and stakeholders about the hidden values of a product or industry that they just don’t seem to get by themselves. The thing is, however much care is put into the crafting of these communications, they may all fall apart when exposed to the army of editors, hackers and mashup artists that populate social networks.

At the core here, is a question of power. The multitudes online control the conversation. If they judge that a message does not address their core concerns, they will ignore it. If they judge that the sender is avoiding an important topic, they will bring that topic to the forefront. If they feel that the sender is being patently dishonest in their communications, they may be moved to spoof the original message and actively promote their subversion (much to the original sender’s regret). This is especially true if public frustrations, fears or deep concerns are in the picture.

Consider these two McDonald’s case studies. In the first now famous #fail story, McDonald’s US launched #McDStories as a promoted hashtag on Twitter, leading to an immediate and outright takeover of the tag by legions of disgruntled customers who had some very graphic McD stories of their own to tell. In Canada, however, McDonald’s listened first and created the Our Food Your Questions platform through which the public could ask any question about McDonald’s food, no matter how embarrassing it might seem to the company. The outcome of the second approach? A resounding success.

branding

The take-away here is that, to engage successfully online, the corporate communications process has to be completely inverted. Instead of cooking up the conversation within the confines of the boardroom and taking care to be ‘on brand’, the process should instead begin with intense listening of existing brand related conversations online and some conversation mapping. What are people really talking about when they mention our brand or industry? What is front of mind? The answers to these questions should dictate the communications axis. And here’s a hint – It will most often be about your product’s safety and reliability, your social and environmental footprint and your customer relations shortcomings. Be prepared to go there and win back some hearts and minds!

If you don’t know where to start, there are now countless tools that allow for social media monitoring and conversation mapping. Just google away and you will find a host of solutions. And another hint – you can drop the services of some marketing ‘gurus’ and allocate this budget to a monitoring team, it will be a an investment that will pay off in spades in years to come.

Principle for Survival #3:
YOU NO LONGER CONTROL THE MESSAGE

This new world is collaborative. People like to take part in creating things online. Otherwise, they do not feel engaged and respected. Shove a message down their throats and they will rebel.

If you start a conversation on social media, be prepared for it to drift in directions that you did not foresee. You must be ok with this. In fact, the message, as you conceived it, will be shaped and distorted in light of the concerns of your audience – your consumers, competitors and the advocates who have issues to take up with you.

Your best bet here is to do some intense listening to existing social media conversations out there before you cook up your brand message. The more your message moves in the direction of existing conversations, the better it will be received as stated.