PR blogs have been on fire the past week debating the Walmart blog fiasco with Edelman at the helm.  Some have taken a subtle delight in Edelman’s failure (see comments on Richard’s response post), while others have shared fears about what this means for the future of PR and social media.  At it’s core, the Walmart case illustrates what is quickly growing to become the dark side of social media – the ease with which the truth can be manipulated.  More and more consumers believe that new blogs or videos posted online are real if they "look real."  Accordingly, there is an expectation from consumers that companies are using personal media to communicate more authentically with them.  As companies start to fail this trust by using personal media covertly for marketing or advertising, critics are coining terms like "flogs" and "astroturfing" to symbolize this emerging dark side of social media. 

Yet this criticism is not new when it comes to complaints about authenticity in marketing.  That debate has long existed, and in part this has led to a situation where most US consumers have become adept at filtering out irrelevant or outrageous marketing claims.  Unfortunately, consumers are learning that their built in radar honed over a lifetime of seeing (and ignoring) interruption marketing messages is now inadequate.  Consumers are being duped easily by phenomena like the LonelyGirl15 episode, where a seemingly authentic conversation turned out to be a publicity stunt.  Consumers are no longer as confident in their ability to spot a marketing message.  As a result, their guard is up.  Their radars are peaked and they are on the lookout for anything inauthentic.  They pounce on corporate missteps like the one from Walmart and blogs that raise the most hell or break the news get the most traffic.  It is the personal media equivalent of the journalist’s search for the scoop … the blogger’s search for the dupe.

Looking at all these risks, some organizations might conclude that it is wiser to simply avoiding doing anything with personal media altogether.  This is a big mistake.  Despite the risks, using personal media for marketing can offer a chance for an authentic dialogue with customers, a chance to ask for and act on direct customer feedback, and a unique and human voice for what may otherwise be a faceless corporation.  In short, the benefits are worth it.  But how can any marketing team hoping to engage in personal media avoid the fate of Walmart, Dell and others?  How do we counsel our clients on using personal media in a way that engages people rather than offering them fuel for contempt?  Below are five lessons that may help in avoiding the dark side of personal media, and finding success in the blogosphere:

  1. Be as transparent as you can.  Transparency is key, as flogs and astroturfing are both based on marketing efforts that are dishonest and lack transparency.  Yet full transparency can make a campaign boring or give away too much too quickly.  The trick is to strike a balance where you maintain authenticity without necessarily giving away every detail.
  2. Don’t be afraid to "admit" you are marketing. This is the single biggest myth that lots of marketing teams believe … that if they admit they are marketing people will stop paying attention.  If a marketing message resonates- the fact that it happens to be marketing doesn’t matter.  This is one of the central concepts behind WOM, that consumers are willing and often happy to support marketing and even become brand ambassadors for something they believe in.
  3. Understand who your detractors are, and assume they will always hate you.  One of the many concepts I picked up from Seth Godin that I am fond of quoting is that every customer has a worldview.  And this world view is nearly impossible to change.  Chevy Tahoe’s viral promotion failed because people who hate SUVs are highly vocal, and people who like them are embarrassed to admit it.  The lesson here is to know who hates you and assume they will be vocal about their hatred.  The only way to manage this is if that group happens to be relatively small, or if you have a equally vocal group of people who love you.
  4. Make sure you have supporters that will fight for you. This relates to the point above.  When engaging in personal media, you can’t succeed if everyone universally hates you.  You need to find a way to engage those people who like your product, service or what you are trying to do.  Ultimately, these voices supporting you in personal media will matter far more than anything you are able to release in your marketing.
  5. Listen, participate and respond. This may be fifth in the list, but is perhaps the most important.  If you look at every instance of personal media marketing horror stories, from the Kryptonite Bike Lock, to Dell Hell, to Walmart … each could have been managed far better if the companies involved had listened, participated and responded to issues or problems raised on blogs.  This is important at all times, and particularly after launching new campaigns and marketing efforts as well.

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