Monday, March 21, 2011

Outsourcing Your Social Media Marketing? Beware.

How to Avoid Out-of-Brand Experiences that Wreck Your Credibility

Social media marketing is the hot marketing trend today – so much so that many marketers can’t get enough of it fast enough. Some marketers are choosing to outsource their social media marketing programs, or portions of them. And there is no shortage of social media marketing “experts” ready to take your money and take on your brand.

And possibly trash your brand, as Chrysler recently found out. An employee of Chrysler’s social media marketing agency posted a Tweet that included profanity and criticized the marketer’s home town. In short: the employee stepped out of brand, making a personal comment that reflected negatively on the Chrysler brand. Although Chrysler responded promptly and decisively, the situation was a black eye for the brand, and the agency lost the business.

I can understand why companies – particularly larger ones – may choose to outsource their social media marketing presence. But I wonder how many realize the risks – and take steps to protect themselves?

Before you entrust your brand to someone – be it a social media marketing agency or an enthusiastic employee – make sure that he understands, respects and cares for your brand as much as you do. The most important part of social media marketing is the social part: the people who converse on your behalf. So choose carefully and plan wisely.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Who’s representing my brand? As a former corporate public relations manager, I always wanted to know exactly who from our PR firm would be representing my company to the media – preferably a seasoned, knowledgeable business person and not the newest hire. Fast-forward to 2011: why wouldn’t I want to know exactly who would be representing my company and brand to the world via social media?

Understand who is representing your brand: his qualifications, his feelings about your product or company, his demeanor. Ask to meet and interview that person. Picture yourself talking with this person at a bar or a softball game. How does it feel? If your feelings are anything but positive, ask for someone else on your account.

What are the rules? Create a written social media policy that everyone understands and agrees to. Keep it simple – a page or so. List what you will talk about, what you won’t talk about, and how to handle special situations (such as negative comments or product complaints). It’s usually prudent to review your social media policy with your legal counsel.

Have three to five brand attributes that your social media reps should adhere to and convey during social media conversations. Better still, print this information on an index card that reps can post on their computer monitors, or create a note that they can reference from their mobile devices.

If you are outsourcing your social media marketing to an outside firm, ask how the firm trains and supervises its people. Also ask about policies for handling and reporting errors.

Finally, make sure to incorporate social media into your crisis communications plan – as a potential crisis not just part of your media mix.

What’s my technology risk? HootSuite, TweetDeck and other applications can automate social media posting for both individuals and teams. Technology can be good when it makes you more efficient, smarter, and more scientific about what you’re doing. But technology can also be bad if it replaces common sense, caution or thinking.

Understand the risks in the tools that you use. For example, the HootSuite dashboard gives you a birds-eye (no pun intended) view of multiple Twitter accounts, using a single log-in. You can post a single Tweet to one or all of the accounts in a single step. It’s all too easy, if you are not careful, to post a Tweet to the wrong account.

This simple mistake may not be a tragedy if it involves your personal accounts. But what if you’re mixing multiple client accounts – or multiple brand personas – in a single dashboard?

So, use technology defensively, not just prospectively. For example: clearly separate personal social media accounts from official brand accounts.

Also, use technology as a buffer or a sanity-check. For example: HootSuite allows you to schedule Tweets – great for when you are going to be on an airplane when you want a Tweet to hit. However, I often make use of the scheduling feature to sanity-check important Tweets before publication; by scheduling a Tweet 15 minutes into the future, I can proofread the Tweet and check any links or cross-references before it is published.

The bottom line: think before you Tweet or post. Most social media are relatively forgiving – you can sometimes correct errors if you are quick about it. However, the social media audience is usually less forgiving – as Chrysler and Aflac now know all too well. A faux pas by a major brand can be around the world – and on its way to “viral” – in seconds. A moment’s thought can often prevent heartbreak.

My advice is to spend time thoughtfully designing, testing and bullet-proofing your program up-front – no matter who is going to run it for you. This investment will pay off.

Businesses that treat social media marketing as a checklist item will get what they pay for: good and hard.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mea Culpa Marketing: Does It Work?

Is “Going Viral” Worth It if It Kills the Host?

As consumers, we’re increasingly being assaulted with marketing campaigns that irritate us, shock us and enrage us. The new formula goes something like this:

• Marketer creates and airs a television campaign that blatantly insults or stereotypes a segment of the population, depicts anti-social behavior, or is just in plain bad taste. (Yes, the latter is still possible to achieve if one works hard enough, even with today’s low bar.)

• Consumers recoil in horror. They flock to social media, posting thousands of messages about the campaign.

• Marketer pretends to be stunned by the market response, and suggests that it never dreamed its campaign would offend so many people.

• Marketer issues apology. It enlists the Professionally Offended – for example, advocacy groups or academic experts– to assist in its rehabilitation. It makes some sort of charitable donation to the offended group(s). Mainstream and social media duly report on the mea culpa, creating another wave of free news coverage for the marketer.

Recent high-profile examples of mea culpa marketing include:

Groupon: This marketer used the plight of the Tibetan people as the introduction for discounted coupons for Himalayan restaurants, chirped with a smug face by actor Timothy Hutton.

HomeAway: This marketer apparently thought it hilarious to launch an infant (played by a doll and labeled “test baby”) into a wall or through it. And even more hilarious to give people a Web-site game where they could place someone’s face on a baby before launching it.

Kraft: This marketer used a scolding, black-clad Greek grandmother to sell Greek yogurt to young women, raising hackles in the Greek-American community.

Mea culpa marketing campaigns tend to proliferate at Super Bowl time. Businesses that have invested millions in TV production and time – including startups – clearly want to get the most out of their investments. Super Bowl advertising has become a mini-industry, attracting lots of press coverage by the mainstream media and consumer engagement on social media. It’s apparently no longer good enough to aim to be the best commercial. Or even the worst commercial, securing your brand’s place in infamy. Marketers today have to really think creatively about how to break through the clutter.

As a consumer, I resent being so blatantly manipulated by marketers. And I respond accordingly, by shunning the marketer and not buying its products.*

As a marketer, I am curiously waiting to see the net effect of these campaigns. The cynic in me believes that many of these offensive campaigns were completely intentional. How could a professional marketer think that launching a baby (albeit fake) into a wall would possibly be perceived as okay by most people? Or that it is funny to exploit the plight of politically oppressed people to sell restaurant meals to overfed Americans?

As a marketer in the pre-Internet days, I was involved in my share of bad-news marketing situations. Our policy was to act quickly and decisively to acknowledge the situation, take corrective action, and then communicate the action thoroughly and clearly. The goal was to prevent press coverage of the story from extending beyond one or two days maximum.

Clearly times have changed, mostly because of the Internet. Groupon appeared to stumble around for days in responding to its situation, extending the story for nearly a week after the Super Bowl broadcast.

Time will tell whether these mea culpa marketing campaigns were profitable for the marketers.

In the meantime, here are some observations.

There is no such thing as an inside joke any more: The Internet brings anyone and everyone to your campaigns, not just the people you are targeting. This means people of different cultures who speak different languages and so on. Someone will be confused, or offended, or both. Your inside joke may be their first – and only – exposure to your brand.

The Offended is big business: There are private advocacy groups that represent segments of the population (for example, Greek-Americans) or problems (child abuse, brain injuries, political oppression in Tibet). There are also published authors, academics, government organizations and NGOs. All can be counted on to respond to a mea culpa campaign, because their missions, businesses and livelihoods depend on it. Further, today social media gives virtually anyone who is offended a platform for expressing himself – and a ready platform for such forms of expression as organizing a worldwide boycott of your product, inciting the vandalizing of your premises, or harassing your executives.

Most consumers have short memories: Particularly given information overload, consumers over time may remember your brand or company name, but not why they remember it. And, once they have vented their initial outrage online, many consumers will move on to the next thing and may continue to buy your product. The lure of discounts for restaurant meals may win out over moral outrage – particularly for people feeding families in today’s economy. Or not.

The Internet has a long memory: Conversely, a quick search on Google or Bing will instantly remind a curious consumer why they heard of you. Far into the future.

So, before considering a mea culpa marketing strategy, ask yourself: “Do I feel lucky?” All the market research in the world may not help.

According to Nielsen, Groupon’s Super Bowl ads boosted traffic to the company ‘s Web site by only 3%. By comparison, HomeAway’s post-Super Bowl traffic was up 27%.

* Obviously, I am contributing to the wave of press coverage of bad behavior.