Take Control by Letting Go

In my column, “A Sea of Shared Knowledge,” I focused on an obvious aspect of social media: It’s a shared media format. Success from the creator’s perspective is measured almost directly by how many people ultimately see and comment on a specific item.

Posting photos, like this example from our recent work with Heavenly Mountain Resort and Twelve Horses Marketing, is an excellent start. Next, is having the images seen. The ultimate: having comments and discussions form around the photos and videos. Problem is, the conversations may not always be what you had intended.

Keep in mind that marketing, whether business-to-audience or person-to-person, represents one small slice of the activity on the greater social Web. For marketers, the challenges in successfully applying social media-based techniques are generally “what to do” and “how to control the response.” The “what” is actually pretty easy: Robert Scoble laid out his “starfish” concept a couple of years ago — something that I built on in my book, “Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day.”

Much more difficult is the “now what?” I’m not talking so much about poorly conceived campaigns that go bad — check Google for “Motrin Moms” as an example.

Rather, the “now what?” involves the very ordinary, very fundamental issues in dealing with the many directions that an otherwise ordinary conversation can take on the social Web. This is generally less of an issue in traditional marketing: The message is completely controlled and the reaction can often be controlled by tuning subsequent iterations of the campaign. The consumer response is typically limited to a small circle of direct friends or contacts. So, a message rarely takes on a life of its own outside of those campaigns (but not necessarily the brands they represent) that become part of pop culture, such as: “Plop plop, fizz fizz.” “Where’s the beef?” “Just do it.” “Can you hear me now?”

In contrast, your audience on the social Web is so connected that anything you place there — assuming it isn’t ignored — will instantly be recast into new forms, morphed into new conversations, and transformed directly into a discussion around the original message. When the message is positive, that’s good, but not always great.

Think about a pharmaceutical ad campaign that leads to widespread consumer-generated discussion about non-approved applications of the product. Or, what happens when the conversation goes down a path that’s at odds with the marketer’s underlying objectives? You know, the “Hey wait, that’s not what I meant!” thing. What do you do then?

This is where the notion of control and the paradigm shift of social media-based marketing is so pronounced. Simply put, there’s no control on the social Web beyond actions related to libel or similarly remedied causes. Even there, control isn’t a given.

Look at JanetAtExxon’s “ExxonMobil,” a fake Twitter account that ExxonMobil shut down. There are still approximately 200,000 direct references to the account and its content on Google, so it isn’t really shut down. ExxonMobil should have taken over the account and used it rather than permanently freezing the past for all to see. Ongoing use of the ExxonMobil account would have the net impact of moving the old conversation out of the center of attention when someone searches for ExxonMobil. Control gives way to influence on the social Web, and influence is built on the fundamental behaviors of participation.

In a blog post, author and expert marketer Katya Andresen discusses her recent experience in the context of control. Katya had been talking about the importance of setting a specific goal in any fundraising activity versus the softer (and all too common) goal of “cause awareness.” She was emphasizing the importance of being clear about an outcome, the difference in telling people about a world condition that warrants our attention (good) versus conveying exactly what she’d like to see us do about it (much better).

Her comments were then picked up and reinterpreted in a subsequent blog as “Always ask directly for money.” This certainly falls under the heading of “being clear,” but in itself is only one very narrow interpretation of what she actually meant. This comment then touched off a whole new discussion that muddied the clarity of her original point, undermining her contribution to the collective discussion.

What did she do? Smartly, she discussed the responses in the same forum as it was occurring. Katya knew she couldn’t control the conversation. To control a social conversation is to limit it. Her goal is to get her message out, not to limit its distribution. By acknowledging and discussing it — rather than attempting to control it — other influential bloggers like Kivi Leroux Miller picked it up and restored the original point while spreading and supporting Katya’s underlying message. Going further, a thread started on her site that further added to the conversation and provided additional visibility to Katya.

That is a very smart approach to the social Web. Give up the notion of immediate control, and instead focus on influencing, participating in, and spreading the conversations that will carry your message further (and faster!) than if you’d attempted to corral a post gone astray.

Approaching the social Web as a marketer requires a new mindset: Listen, participate, influence, and guide the collective conversation. This is in distinct contrast to traditional media where you prescribe, plan, and control your message.

Note that the two fit together: Your message creates an expectation of performance, for example, that is reflected in the post-purchase conversations. “Hey, this stuff really works! You should try it!”

Social media is one more tool in your marketing toolbox. Social media-based marketing is one more ingredient in your overall mix. Sure, it may have a different set of rules, but then so does copy writing for outdoor versus magazine versus online. Once you’ve learned the new rules, it’s simply an integration problem, and my bet is that you’re already very accomplished as an integrated marketer.

Begin building connections into your business operations and customer service, where experiences that lead to conversations are often generated. That’s something I’ll be talking more about in a Webinar hosted by Cymfony on Feb. 25.

Relax the reins on your social efforts, and let your participation and the great experiences you create with your operations team guide the conversations. When they take an odd twist, don’t panic: Instead, jump in and gently guide the conversation. Be a part of it. Ultimately, if what you deliver syncs with the values of your customers, the conversation will go where you want. That’s a beautiful thing.

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