SES: Managing Social Media

At last week’s SES conference in San Jose, I participated in two ClickZ panels: Managing Conversations and Social Media: White Hat vs. Black Hat. These two back-to-back sessions were related through the practical concepts that agencies and PR firms in particular face when it comes to managing conversations and electing how they will choose to participate on the social Web.

The general takeaway from the Managing Conversations panel was that we marketers can’t manage conversations directly but must instead manage them indirectly, through our business processes. Rather than covering up a conversation about a poor product experience, use the conversation to change the product. The connection here is of course the social feedback cycle: the purchase funnel connects to the social Web, with post-purchase feedback based on actual experiences influencing potential customers currently in the consideration (a.k.a., research) phase. Where managing the conversation translates into managing the post-purchase experience, the tendency is to want to control the conversations between customers, just as the dialogue between marketer and customer is controlled in traditional media.

This same desire for control tempts agencies and brands into a gray area of marketing techniques, the focus of the White Hat vs. Black Hat panel. Approaching conversation management from a control point stems from the same underlying misunderstanding of contemporary customer and market dynamics as does the desire to fast-forward or force-place a product or service in the context of search rather than building presence organically.

The end result, depending on the methods chosen, is either an affirmation or a weakening of credibility and trust. This is a critical notion. Consumers’ dramatic adoption of the social Web for purchase research is driven at least in part by the relative lack of trust in advertising when compared with peer-generated information. Consider the effective reach of the social Web. Younger consumers’ involvement is well known, but 60 percent of the 55-plus group is being influenced by the social Web as well. Add to that the growing sophistication of consumer tools that prevent or stymie interruptive advertising, and it’s clear why the social Web has become a primary theater in which marketers battle for mindshare. Rather than white hat versus black hat, the panel quickly zeroed in on what works and what doesn’t.

Jumping off the issues of control and trust set up in “Managing Conversations,” the “White Hat vs. Black Hat” panel dove into the issue of intent, looking at various techniques around search and social media optimization — not as right versus wrong (all agreed that this type of approach is folly), but as brand benefit versus consumer benefit. Examined this way, techniques like turning up the volume of late-night TV ads and creating a fake blog are seen for what they are: clear statements that desire for sales is more important than concern for the customer. Blogger Bruce Clay offers a nice write-up of the White Hat vs. Black Hat panel, in case you missed it.

Panelists Beth Harte, Lee Odden, Dave Snyder, and Chris Bennett collaboratively built on the underlying intent of various practices. They balanced these against the risk to the brand given the combination of a particular technique and the community or context in which it is used. For example, Dell’s use of Twitter for outbound marketing, with Dell’s characteristic policy of absolute, full disclosure, is generally seen as OK because its community of hardware buyers across a range of businesses choose on their own to follow Dell’s Twitter accounts, citing pure utility value. By comparison, as Snyder and Bennett both noted, if a small business in a different type of community tries to use Twitter for outbound marketing, that community may reject the notion and rebel against the brand as a result. Clearly, it’s incumbent on the agency, brand strategy team, or whoever else is in charge to clearly understand the norms of the audience and accurately assess the risks of engagement on the social Web.

Beyond the marketer’s intent in determining the customer experience is the platform itself. The panel noted the role of the platforms in facilitating spam and black-hat practices. When the platform team has its eye on an exit strategy with a value driven by audience size (selling ads is still the favorite community business model), certain amounts of misuse can be expected.

Bennett noted that “spam policing responsibilities fall to the platform providers, especially in situations where the community can’t do anything on its own to avoid spam.” For example, searching Twitter will almost always return spam, something the end user is basically powerless to control. Twitter’s trending topics is similar; accounts that are less than 24 hours old, for example, are often used for spam purposes or to drive Twitter’s trending topics. Bennett’s analytics company, BLVD Status, offers a tool for Firefox users that combats this form of spam, resulting in an improved Twitter experience. The challenge is for the platforms themselves to implement these same controls, giving users a direct role in eliminating spam within the communities they frequent. A great example of system-level anti-spam tools that result in an improved user experience is the WordPress Akismet plug-in, which blocks links and trackbacks blog spam.

In the end, ClickZ’s SES track proved informative. Managing Conversations and Social Media: White Hat vs. Black Hat offered a few important points for brand and marketing managers:

  • Understand the techniques being considered before putting them into play. When a social-media-based campaign is called out as spam, it’s usually — but not always — the brand rather than the practitioner that takes the hit.

  • Choose the level of risk you are comfortable with. Any form of marketing on the social Web has some risk, just as any humorous TV spot or billboard runs some risk of offending someone. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If your tolerance for risk is low, stick with the social-media-based marketing techniques that withstand the full light of day.
  • Consider the platforms you are working with, and demand from platform providers a stronger stance on the proliferation of exploitative techniques. The social Web is a shared, collective space, and we all have an interest in keeping it clean.

Following these guidelines will result in a better social Web experience for everyone and the realization of a truly powerful approach to marketing. It’s all about consumers sharing knowledge and making better decisions as a result. Build your capability to listen, learn, and participate to build trust with your customers. Do this, and you’ll make your product or service the logical conclusion of that better decision.

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