Honesty, Always the Best (Company) Policy

Posted on October 14, 2009

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There are many pitfalls in the world of social media marketing. Because of the interconnected, informal nature of web 2.0 it is easy for many companies to fall prey to embarrassing mistakes that can taint their reputation.

Perhaps the most well-known example is Sony’s attempt to connect with its hip, young consumers by launching a blog, alliwantforxmasisapsp.com, that featured two teenagers voicing their pleas to their parents for a PSP.

Except the two “teenagers” were really Sony employees. And Sony never disclosed (until it was too late) that it was behind the bogus blog. All of that is bad enough and maybe would not have been a big deal or become a cautionary tale if it had not been for Sony’s and their ad agency’s (Zipatoni) tin-eared impressions of a teenage male circa 2006.

Allow me to share with you now Sony’s impression of its core consumers when confronted about its fake blog. “Charlie” responds: “yo where all u hatas com from… juz cuz you aint feelin the flow of PSP dun mean its sum mad faek website or summ… youall be trippin.”

Imagine for a moment that you are a multinational, billion-dollar household electronics giant. Is this quote really something you would ever want attributed to you or your employees while representing you in an official capacity? Sony’s intent is all too easy to spot of course.

During social media’s first steps into the public consciousness most companies brought old marketing strategies to a brand new medium. In Sony’s case it’s all too easy to see how they thought they might have the next “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” guy on their hands. In reality web 2.0 users have no interest in or patience for these kinds of gimmicks.

So what is a business to do? Tell the truth, plain and simple. Don’t try to hide your involvement with a blog or other form of social marketing. Disguising your role in a campaign or representing a campaign as a fan-generated “movement” can backfire spectacularly. Those who have succeeded by crafting viral marketing that at first glance seems independent of a product have done so by tying it into what’s called an “alternate reality” where there can be little question that the website or promotion is spearheaded by a corporation but kept active by everyday users. Recent examples include the viral marketing campaigns behind the movies “The Dark Knight” and “Cloverfield.” Of course, these are entertainment properties where consumers are already expected to check reality at the door. A product such as Skittles or Coke would have a much harder time pulling off something similar without incurring the wrath of the internet for misrepresentation.

It’s also important to extend that policy to your employees. Today anyone can have a Facebook page, Twitter account and a blog that can be promoted on either. As a company you cannot expect to censor your employees’ Facebook profiles or Twitter accounts but you can provide them with a set of guidelines when they comment on either your company or your competitors:

1. When addressing an issue that is related, in any way, to your company’s market sector or products make sure you first disclose who you work for. Also when commenting about one of your company’s competitors, large or small, disclose who your employer is.

2. If you are going to review a product from a competitor or your own company again make sure you disclose your association.

3. If asked for consumer advice or technical support you should refer the person inquiring to an impartial reviewer or your company’s technical support page. If you choose to give consumer shopping advice again be sure to disclose your role as an employee and that your advice is your own opinion and that you are not acting as an official representative for the company. Follow the same steps if dispensing technical advice (although it’s probably better if you don’t engage in the latter).

4. Do not engage in “flame wars” with other commenters or bloggers on issues related to your company’s products or services. In this case even if you stress that you’re not acting as a company representative your behavior can hurt your company’s image.

5. Do not discuss internal matters on your social media accounts. This one’s a no-brainer but it should still be a part of your social media employee guidelines. Personnel should be strongly discouraged from tweeting, blogging or posting Facebook status updates about office gossip, conflicts and, more importantly, official company policies and  discussions.

6. Always remember: just as in your private, offline life your actions on the web can reflect on your company. This guideline is not meant to censor but to remind your employees that they represent your company at all times and should act in accordance with your company’s standards of ethics and behavior.

Transparency is the new golden rule of marketing in social media. Practice this standard and encourage your employees to follow suit to avoid potentially embarrassing situations.

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