Getting a hold on social media

Ray Titus | Updated on March 28, 2011

Build trust: Organisations should use social media to engage with their customers. Above, a screenshot of General Motor’s blog, FastLane.

The Mumbai Police, in a bid to connect with everyday people, hosted their Facebook page. But what they didn't expect was what people did.

The Facebook page created to allow Mumbaikars to post pictures of traffic offenders saw them upload pictures of cops accepting bribes, riding bikes without helmets, and even describing in detail a few cops' corrupt ways. But to the police's credit, they took the people's response well and used it to better their own policing.

This event serves as a warning to every organisation that is, or wants to be on social media.

Most firms seem to think that social media is about setting up a Facebook page or a Twitter account and ensuring there are a few posts or tweets on it.

What they don't grasp is the changed ‘communication dynamics' that accompanies the adoption of a social media communication platform.

Here are five points that firms must internalise to understand this ‘altered' communication dynamic so that they can adapt.

Content Creation and Propagation

Unlike traditional media that is used to broadcast one-way messages, social media turns the traffic discomfortingly two-way. Traditional recipients of marketing and other content now turn into content creators and propagators. For example, a brawl in the stands at the US Open was loaded on YouTube even before ESPN could get the footage. In two days, one such video had been viewed 40,000 times.

Content Creator and Propagator Credibility

As unfair as it may be, everyday people creating and propagating content online brings with it greater credibility and believability. Recipients view such content as being neutral and, therefore, believable.

Thus, Brain Finkelstein's YouTube video on a sleeping Comcast technician turned more believable than Comcast's marketing campaign.

Content Propagation Speed

The speed with which content reaches the social media public is stupendous. The news about the Sichuan earthquake broke first on even before Chinese authorities could issue an official statement. Soon, numerous earthquake videos made their way onto YouTube, while a rolling account of the day's events was on Shanghaiist, a Shanghai city Web site.

Content Exposure

Firms on social media must know everything that goes on social media as part of their own initiative or outside of it will assume global proportions. Social media operates on an Internet platform that makes content widespread. The Iranian election result of 2009 illustrates this well.

Cyber-protests from around the world in a co-ordinated move targeted key Iranian official Web sites. Harnessing ‘crowd-sourcing', the world–wide protest campaign encouraged anti-Government protesters from around the world to participate.

Content Control

Organisations for the first time are experiencing a loss of control. The quality, pace, and propagation of content is moving into the hands of the social media public, which may even include employees. ‘Mini-Microsoft', a blog set up in 2004, criticises IT's Big Daddy and has turned into a ‘water-cooler' for employees to congregate and vent their frustrations without fear of retribution.

Knowing this, how must firms fashion a suitable response? Here are five ways to manage the impact of social media:

Listen, listen, listen

Social media for organisations should be more a platform to listen than to blindly create and propagate content about themselves. Listening means ‘monitoring' content that is created and exchanged.

Firms can even do this themselves by using, a specialist analytics platform to monitor their company's social media impact.

Build Trust

Many firms mistakenly use social media sites only to spread marketing material. Social media platforms should be used by an organisation to build trust with its audience. General Motors, for example, used its ‘FastLane' blog to reach out and connect with its consumers by engaging in a two-way conversation.

Resist the temptation to ‘control'

One of the worst mistakes on social media is to try and suppress dissent. Take the case of Barbara Streisand. Named after her, the ‘Streisand Effect' is an online phenomenon in which an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of causing the information to be publicised widely and to a greater degree.

Know when to respond and when not to

Knowing when to speak up or shut up is critical on social media. Organisations must come to terms with the fact that they will be ‘talked' about. Knowing when to respond to such ‘talk' and when not to, is important. Nestle's Facebook fan page moderator's curt and rude reaction to GreenPeace's criticism on its palm oil sourcing practices boomeranged. An avalanche of rants on Nestlé's Facebook page ensued. Outgunned by critics, Nestle apologised.

This is in contrast to an overreaction by Motrin to the criticism it received from Mommy Bloggers on its TV commercial. The fact was the critics were a minority. Misjudging, Motrin pulled the ‘offending' commercial. Later surveys showed most moms weren't offended.

Have a Social Media Strategy

Finally, organisations must enter the social media space with a carefully laid out and defined strategy.

That would require firms to answer three simple questions, ‘Who are they targeting with social media?', ‘How can they deploy social media tactics for considerable success?', and ‘What goals or objectives do they wish to accomplish?'

Managing social media isn't easy. But it isn't impossible either. Navigating the social media waters requires that companies not only understand the changed ‘communication dynamic', but also know how to craft a measured and impactful response.

(The writer serves as Area Chairperson & Professor of Strategy & Marketing at Alliance University, School of Business, Bangalore. He publishes his blog ‘Buyer Behaviour' at

Published on March 13, 2011

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