Who's more at risk: little Johnny on MySpace, or that child known as your brand?
You can't read the paper these days without seeing yet another item raising concerns or watch-outs about the long-term consequences of kids posting their rich-media résumés (let's leave it at that) on MySpace.com.
Such coverage points to the ease of discovering revealing teen content through search, the risk of sexual predators following a digital trail, even the difficulty of teens finding jobs in a world where employers are running reference checks on MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr.
As a parent with a blog dedicated to my kids, you can bet our huge stash of diapers I'm asking hard questions about how much information we make public on the Web.
Fear, Engagement, and Long-Overdue Web Awareness
But I'm asking other hard questions as well, especially as a marketer who's paid to act like a protective parent to another child: my brand.
Fear begets not only attention but also engagement. There's a silver lining for the marketing community amidst the social media fear factor, though. Thanks to the MySpace wake-up call, parents and just about everyone else are learning a lot more about how the Web really works.
The Web is interconnected. It's searchable. It's rich with high-impact multimedia, especially video. It feeds a bevy of smaller devices. It mixes and mashes and commingles and flirts with other content sources. Most important, the Web is inseparable from the lives and social currency of the younger generation.
But this raises a really important, long-overdue question for marketers and brand managers: are our brands safe online?
As with our kids, our brands face comparable risks of exposure, ruined reputations, eroded equity, and compromised positioning via the Web. Most of us are too busy watching TV to fully appreciate this reality.
A brand's credibility and reputation are the product of many factors, but more and more the public, highly viral digital trail of consumer-generated media (CGM) is moving to the front of the line in shaping brand perceptions.
Our brand equity is the sum total of our search results. Increasingly, search result shelf space is dominated by CGM from blogs, message boards, forums, communities, YouTube, and other expression platforms.
Stars and Scars
So how do we manage brand equity in such an environment? One critical difference between being the parent of a brand versus that of a teenager is the brand parent has neither the authority nor standing to simply tell consumers to yank that page off the Web. After all, the consumer -- not the marketer -- is now in control, despite what our lawyers keep insisting in Neanderthaloid memos.
What we can do is listen, and listen well. The simple truth is we're accountable for everything that's said about our brands. If we aren't listening, we can't properly manage. Encouragingly, the digital trail that shows up on message boards, stimulating offline word of mouth or feeding search results, is quickly evolving into a highly revealing (often incriminating) brand scorecard.
This scorecard represents a mix of "stars and scars." Stars reflect the good things we do; scars reflect our neglect, eroded trust, or outright stupidity. Most negative publicity about MySpace is centered on the lifelong scars teens inflict upon themselves by their reckless exposure of dumb behavior.
With billions of brand-specific stars and scars dotting the Web, marketers now have buckets of data points against which to make and indict key decisions. Importantly, marketers own many of the key levers that precipitate or influence brand love (stars) or criticism (scars). Our problem is we don't know how to connect the dots.
The key to brand management in the new marketing era is interpreting and exploiting the stars and scars to shape optimal marketing practices and business processes. For example:
At the end of the day, we're playing the same game we played in kindergarten: maximize the number of stars on our foreheads. The big difference on the Web is those stars (or scars) are permanent.
Like newly enlightened parents concerned about the long-term scars of Johnny participating on MySpace, brand parents must be ever-attentive to how stars and scars shape long-term brand equity and reputation.
Meet Pete at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
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Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."
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