Corporations reluctant embrace of social media

Posted on April 26, 2009 
Filed Under Social Media

Two articles point to how corporations are dealing with the viral nature of social media and either getting it or completely fumbling.

Corporate America’s messy embrace of new media – LATimes
FaceBook puts fizz in Coke – FT

1. Corporations need to understand there is a latent, under-served fan base that wants to connect and engage with their brands online. Tap into it!

2. If you are late coming to the party in your honour, make friends with the defacto host fast. (Consider the “Susan Boyle effect“, where Britain’s Got Talent franchise owner has allowed the video to run riot online, winning millions more fans, whereas the American Idol franchise counterpart has issued takedown notices for 8 years and continues to do so.)

3. In a crisis, if it’s good news — get it out fast, if it’s bad news — get it out faster.

Mashed-up version of the two articles follows below:

When two Coca-Cola enthusiasts created a Facebook fan page in honour of their favourite soft drink last year, they could not have known it would become one of the social network site’s most popular – second only to Barack Obama’s.

The Coca-Cola fan page was created by Dusty Sorg, a Los Angeles-based actor, who maintained it with his friend Michael Jedrzejewski, a writer.

“I was already on Facebook a lot and I didn’t see any Coke pages that seemed very official,” says Mr Sorg. So he started the page in August, invited his friends, and watched it grow. And grow and grow and grow.

By December, when Facebook called Coca-Cola to alert it that the page violated the social network’s terms of service because it wasn’t operated by the trademark owner, it already had a million fans. “Take over the site,” Facebook apparently told Coke, “or we’ll take it down.”

Instead, the beverage maker flew the pair to its Atlanta headquarters in January, took them to a hockey game, gave them a VIP tour of the Coke museum and let them play Eric Clapton’s guitar, then proposed that they officially run the page for the company. The two agreed. It now has more than 3.3 million users.

What spurred the enormous growth remains something of a mystery. There were already more than 200 Coke-related fan pages on Facebook. Michael Donnelly, Coca-Cola’s group director of worldwide interactive marketing, who had been monitoring the page since October, believes it may have been as simple as a good visual cue. “They chose a great image,” he says. “It was a high-resolution picture of a can of cold Coke, and it was just perfect.”

“It’s an excellent example of a partnership between the brand and the consumer,” says Kristen Smith, executive director of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.
“Coke could have shut it down or could have said ‘We want to manage it’, but have now created a great collaboration.”

Yet engaging with consumers can be dangerous, too. Skittles learned that last month when it invited users to post Twitter-like comments on a page that prominently displayed its logo. Along with positive comments appeared a colorful variety of profane ones.

“There’s a mob mentality to social tools where people quickly try to put fuel on the fire, really encouraging brand damage and damage to individuals,” said Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

To stay safe in a social-media minefield, he said, brands need to make sure to secure their own domain names in social-media environments, before any squatters do,- and then start to build a community there. When a crisis happens, online or off, brands can then use that community to their advantage.

That’s the opposite of how Hasbro Inc. reacted last year when it sued the India-based creators of Scrabulous, the popular Scrabble-like game on Facebook,- and forced them to take it down. Fans of the game formed “Save Scrabulous” pages on Facebook and posted angry messages about Hasbro. When a company-sanctioned version of the game appeared sometime later, fewer returned to play.

Sending in the legal posse is an old-fashioned response in the new media age, Owyang said. “It creates so much more buzz — people wonder why you would beat up your most passionate customers.”

Other companies may find that unexpected uses of their brands online give rise to immediate PR nightmares.

A little more than a week ago, a video showed up online showing two Domino’s employees laughing as they prepared food in a deliberately unsanitary way.

The video quickly generated hundreds of thousands of views.

The pizza company’s initial instinct was to try to dispose of the situation quietly by responding only to concerned consumers who had seen the video, rather than risk broadening its exposure by making a public statement.

But chatter about the problem spilled over into Twitter, whose expansive micro-messaging network is becoming an online circulatory system for news, pumping information between media organs, consumers and businesses themselves.

Domino’s posted a YouTube response
of its own, and even established a Twitter account to answer direct questions from customers.

“If something happens in this medium, it’s going to automatically jump to the next,” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre said. “So we might as well talk to everybody at the same time.”

When Amazon was faced with its own consumer outcry recently, it decided to forgo the social-media route.

Without warning, many gay- and lesbian-themed books began disappearing from the site’s search results and sales rankings. The Twittersphere instantly saw red, accusing the company of discrimination and censorship and demanding a response.

But >Amazon stayed mostly mum. The company first waited most of a day only to cite an unspecified “glitch,” and when that vagueness only fomented the outrage, it released a second clipped statement blaming a “cataloging error.”

But Twitter abhors a vacuum, and commenters rapidly filled Amazon’s silence with boycott threats, petitions and caustic accusations, an outcome that suggests that the growth of social media may be driving up the cost of inaction.

(Demi and Ashton Kutcher beaming their win on
When lightweight actor Ashton Kutcher challenged CNN in a race to get 1 million followers an odd quirk of the much-hyped race was that CNN hadn’t actually owned the account until a few days earlier.

For two years, the CNNBrk account (for breaking news) had been created, maintained, and run by a 25-year-old British Web developer who just wanted a way to beam short news alerts to his cell phone.

But when the cable network found that James Cox had appropriated its name and content, it took a direction that might seem a bit surprising. Instead of suing Cox or trying to shut down the account, the cable network quietly hired him to run it, then acquired it last week when Cox was visiting the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

“We’ve been managing the feed through him,” said a CNN spokesman, noting the huge increase in the number of Twitter followers since the November election. “As Twitter took off and became more prominent, we decided it was time to take our engagement and make it a marriage.”

The CNNbrk Twitter account was a hit probably because it was useful to hundreds of thousands, and now a million other fans beyond Cox’s wildest dreams.

The Coca-Cola fan page was a hit thanks to a combination of weak competition and good timing and pretty pictures. It had a momentum of its own, and a community loyal to its quirky founders. Had Coke set up the page itself or taken it over, there is no guarantee it would still be thriving.

Indeed, the most effective thing Coca-Cola and CNN did – and perhaps the best lesson for other companies – was not getting in the way.


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