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  |  July 19, 2010   |  Comments

Social media runs on trust and truth. Don't try to silence your consumers.

"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Most of us have probably received that nugget of advice at some time in our lives, probably from a well-meaning parent, grandparent, or teacher. It's a nice idea designed to promote civility, but when it comes to participating in social media being nothing but positive can be a real negative.

Why? Because social media runs on trust, and trust comes from being able to believe what someone else is saying. "Trust" equals "truth." We trust the people we believe are telling us the truth.

How do we know if someone's telling us the truth? One of the most important ways to know is if the person is able to talk about the positive and negative aspects of a topic. It's why we don't trust salespeople and, sadly, advertising. Relentless positivity is generally regarded as BS.

By now, most of us have encountered a site that accepts consumer reviews only to find nothing but overhyped positive reviews of what we're looking at. And if you think back on your reaction, you've probably run as fast as possible the other way. As John McAteer of Google has said, "no one trusts all positive reviews."

Unfortunately, for as long as these ratings sites have existed, fake online reviews posted by unscrupulous marketers have been a problem. While they might fool some people, such reviews are ultimately self-defeating for the company perpetrating them because they undermine what may have made them effective in the first place: trust in the company and trust in the review site.

Thankfully, consumers seem to be getting pretty savvy about spotting fake online reviews. That's a good thing. The Web has made reputation and brand experience a participatory sport. Brands have now become collaborations, created from the interplay between what companies say about themselves and what others say about them online. While word-of-mouth certainly existed in the pre-Web world, its impact was limited to the relatively small number of people your words could reach. The Internet (and social media in particular) has given everyone with access to it a global platform for their opinions, and people have gladly seized the opportunity to be heard. Bad companies and bad products have had fewer places to hide, and that's benefited all of us.

Unfortunately, faced with ever-more-sophisticated consumers that have made it harder for shills to survive in the shadows, companies now are turning to lawsuits in order to manage their online reputations. Say something bad about a company and you could end up being hit with a lawsuit just like these folks who complained about a bad plastic surgeon on a doctor ratings message board.

These lawsuits are collectively known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and are typically filed without the intention of ever taking the negative reviewer to court. Instead, the idea is to scare them into either recanting or removing their negative review, effectively silencing the complaint.

These kinds of lawsuits often work to the plaintiff's benefit because many people don't have the time, money, or righteous commitment it takes to fight them. After all, who among us would go to court because we had a bad meal at a restaurant and were peeved enough to post a review to Yelp.com, only to then get sued by the restaurant? Not many, I'm sure.

Thankfully, 26 states in the U.S. have laws against SLAPP suits that require that the SLAPP-er withdraw the suit and pay the defendant's court costs. But how many of us know that? Even in states where we might be protected, most of us would rather shut up than go through the hassle of fighting it out.

The sad fact is that even if all of us reading about this don't ever get SLAPP-ed, if you didn't know about this problem before, now you might think twice before posting a negative review somewhere. It's this chilling effect that's the biggest issue and one that Internet marketers interested in reaping the benefits of social media for our brands need to be concerned with.

If you're going to be involved in social media, it's imperative that you be prepared to take the good with the bad. The days where brands could control the global conversation about themselves are over. You can fight back with lawsuits (sometimes with hilariously-unintended consequences...see "The Streisand Effect") or plant false reviews, but ultimately those tactics are self-defeating. You can even just ignore what's happening, but the fact is that none of those tactics are going to work in the long run. Those conversations about your brand are going to happen whether you like it or not.

So what should marketers do in the age of social media? The most important strategy is one of the simplest: become part of the conversation. Tell the truth. Take your lumps when you deserve them and do better. The social capital generated by paying attention to the concerns of consumers returns far more from your investment in time and attention than does throwing lawyers or money at the problem. Talk, don't SLAPP.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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