The great health care debate this past summer could be a preview of what the future of marketing looks like. How, you ask? For some years now, the “mainstream” journalists who have been trained to fact check and present both sides of a story have been losing their voice to an ever growing multitude of bloggers with extreme views , strong opinions and, in some cases, a disdain for facts and sober analysis. This blogosphere, magnified by the echo chamber of 24/7 cable news channels, hungry for controversy and content, set the tone and the agenda for the shouting match that stood in for reasoned debate on the topic of healthcare, a subject of great concern for most Americans. Professional journalists were caught by surprise and spent most of their time reacting to these controversies rather than reporting on the substance of health care reform. Marketers have similarly embraced social networks as a way to generate word of mouth advertising, cross over tipping points, build fan bases and encourage consumers to generate their own content.
Social media can offer a unique and powerful way to communicate with your customer base, particularly the minority of deep loyalists who are hungry for contact and involvement and can be terrific brand evangelists. There have been innumerable instances where companies have successfully leveraged social networks to get their message across effectively and in a coordinated fashion with other more traditional media (JetBlue’s All You can Jet pass is a great example). Instances of consumers starting and sustaining campaigns against a brand remain few and far between, with the highly effective campaign by xxxx against Dell a few years ago remaining one of the few spectacularly successful campaigns – that ironically probably benefited Dell in the long run.
However, companies must be careful about how they leverage social media lest they not kill the golden goose. Already there are many instances of so called consumer “opinions” and ratings on advisory sites that are written by shills. While the more obvious ones pose little danger since they are so transparently false, the more sophisticated ones can be very dangerous and sour consumers on these channels. Large companies seem to have been careful to avoid the obvious pitfalls of hiring or paying shills but many smaller firms, particularly those that do not have professional marketers seem to have succumbed to the temptation. The line dividing honest consumer opinion and paid advocacy is increasingly blurred in the blogosphere. Bloggers and Tweeters need to make a living too and realize that their bread is buttered on two sides – their credibility with their readers as well as payments in cash or kind they may be receiving from companies. In the past summer of our discontent there were uproven allegations that corporations with a vested interest in the current system financed some of these “spontaneous” demonstrations and protests against reform. Could your competitors similarly poison consumers against your brand through guerilla tactics in the blogosphere? Unlikely, you say? As little as a few years ago, few experts would have predicted the tone of our current political debate.
So while you plunge ahead eagerly and fearlessly into the newly opened social frontiers, do think through the implications and repercussions. On the other hand, if you are not there your competitors could stake their claims and leave you out in the cold. So make sure that while you design your offensive game, you also give some thought to playing defense, if it becomes necessary.