When Is It Time To Join The Conversation?

  |  May 5, 2011   |  Comments

Whether it's Prince William's wedding or Osama bin Laden's death, each brand must decide when to join a conversation – or sit it out.

I grew up with "Wills" lovingly Scotch-taped to my bedroom door, his boyish grin showering me with a daily dose of cute, causing me to lament why I wasn't British-Canadian. (How the logistics of that one worked out on my warped road to the monarchy, I'm not sure.) So when it came to following the royal wedding last week, all the same warm, fuzzy feelings resurfaced through a simple scroll of my Facebook wall, and all that wholesome Prince William equity transferred upon anyone willing to jump on the wedding wagon: a recipe site's rendition of chocolate biscuit cake? Yes, please! Achieve Kate Middleton's wedding-day look with these overpriced makeup products? Adding now. Tired parody of JK Wedding Dance with incredibly well-cast lookalikes? Meh, I suppose.

A few hours later and five minutes into a British domain registrar's "Can You Marry Harry" quiz (alas, 44 percent compatible), I realized just how deliciously digestible and easily marketable this event was - as if a generous pile of free "Likes" was there for the taking, and all the brands were diving in and hoarding away, drunk with just a taste of transient HRH-brand goodness. I was right there with them, reinforcing their tactics with my unsightly amounts of logged hours on their sites and shopping carts.

Fast forward to Sunday night, when an ominous release from the White House soon erupted into the news we know now - Osama bin Laden, dead. Many of us found out through our social networks, friends, and tweeters adding their own color commentary and politics to the news reports that ranged from comedy hour to patriotic hysterics. But as opposed to the love fest taking place just a few days prior, brands were mercifully quiet - with only a few subtle exceptions like this following example.

The contrast of these two uncomfortably close events begs the question: How does a brand develop a social conscience, knowing when to join the conversation and when to stay out?

I wish I had the magic formula, or an answer that wasn't "Use common sense, stupid." But what is tangible and understood is a level of PR-ninja sophistication - an ability to navigate through mass-interest, real-time subject matter and distill its social relevancy, sensitivity level, and general marketability through the filter of your brand. It's about capitalizing on a moment of universal appeal without sacrificing the focus or strength of your brand voice.

As you encounter these topics and events, you're able to use it as an opportunity to learn and interview yourself and your team about your brand's current social positioning. Here are just a few example thought-starters to help you internalize your brand:

  • Am I politically agnostic, or do I see value in taking a stance?
  • Would I rather allow my community to guide the conversation, or am I responsible for starting and setting the tone for a given topic?
  •  Does my personality allow me to relate, "on the ground," to my audience, or does it maintain that I keep a distance and remain above the fray?
  • Would people care about my opinion on [Topic X]? Can I offer them a perspective that no one else could?
  • How does [Topic X] benefit me? How does [Topic X] hurt me?

Far from formulaic, it's still an area of experimentation (with plenty of yikes moments that most certainly varies by situation and brand. But it helps to look at every event as an opportunity to challenge yourself to play in that rare and ripe territory where brand culture intersects with popular culture. Identify and inspire conversation using these areas of overlap as boundaries to reign you in from stepping into faux pas territory, and trust in your audience to serve as guideposts.

I'm going back to re-take the Harry quiz, now. Looking forward to hearing your own take on how the past few weeks of events have informed you about brands and social commentary.


Caroline Chen

Caroline Chen serves in a hybrid role at Publicis Groupe futures practice Denuo, tackling copywriting, design, strategy, and community management for its host of clients, which include AstraZeneca, General Mills, P&G, and Taco Bell.

Her responsibility as the agency's resident community manager is to help create content and manage customer relationships for clients' social communities. Working closely with SVP Dan Buczaczer, Caroline co-leads Denuo's newest practice, Continuous Content. This unit offers a more comprehensive service for clients needing a social strategy and surfaces creative ideas that helps them engage audiences for the long term.

Prior to launching Continuous Content, Caroline honed her social and community expertise while working on some of Denuo's largest social media efforts, including running the social strategy and Facebook and Twitter communication efforts during the redbox Thanks a Billion campaign – a promotion which celebrated the company's billionth rental and provided redbox customers with prizes and a chance to win free rentals. She also helped with the creation and launch of Tablespoon.com's Facebook recipe-sharing app Foodlife and helped design the identity for Taco Bell Truck - a popular user-generated Denuo program that launched in 2008 and continues to make stops across the country to hand out free Taco Bell food, based on social media recommendations from fans.

Before joining Denuo, Caroline had been art director at Chicago-based advertising and branding agency Point B Communications. Prior, she served as an interactive designer at film and TV boutique Mad Monkey and as a copywriter and designer for full service advertising, marketing, and interactive agency Robin Shepherd Group. She has received a number of American Advertising Federation ADDY awards – recognizing creative excellence in the art of advertising – for her work on radio spots, billboards, interactive design, and more.

She received her Bachelor of Science degree in advertising from the University of Florida in 2004.

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