The double-edged nature of the Facebook phenomenon

Sites such as Facebook allow friends to share their views, but if those opinions threaten your brand, make positive use of the feedback. By Ruth Mortimer

Ruth_120Social networks such as Facebook are rich environments for marketers. Every person’s “profile” is a potential goldmine of information; you can find out everything from someone’s age and location to their favourite activities. But they also come with risks; there are many places where brands can come a cropper.

Two weeks ago, HSBC discovered that its decision to scrap an interest-free account for recent university graduates was making headlines. While the days of student sit-ins might be long gone, young people hit back in their own way. They created a Facebook group called “Stop The Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off”, which built up more than 7,500 members.

Although the bank quickly responded to the National Union of Students, who were involved with the group, by freezing interest on this year’s graduate overdrafts, the furore has not died down. There are still more than 20 groups on Facebook alone dedicated to anti-HSBC discussion called everything from “Hate HSBC” to “HSBC Victim Support”.

Some of the anti-HSBC groups have even created their own advertising, based on the bank’s real marketing. One customer-created spoof reads “Left school? No job? No money? Then f*** off.” Perhaps financial services customers are not quite as apathetic as previously thought.

Worse than customers creating negative marketing for your brand is the prospect of your own staff doing so. Last month, it was reported that several employees at directory enquiries company 118 118 face the sack over comments posted on a Facebook group profile. One man claimed to have written customer phone numbers on public toilet walls while other people discussed the stupidity of certain callers.

The damage from employees can be unintended. Social networks allow people to build up their own personal brands through their profile pages. But what happens if the personal brands of your employees don’t fit with the corporate brand? Most people tone down their behaviour to fit into a professional environment, but when they log on, the corporate hat comes off.

Scotland Yard has been forced to investigate videos appearing on Facebook that apparently show uniformed officers cuffing themselves to chairs and performing a mock striptease. While this might be someone’s idea of humour, it is obviously imperative that police are seen to take their jobs seriously. This type of video undermines that brand message.

Advertising on a social network also has pitfalls. First, consumers simply don’t like it. An exclusive YouTube survey for Brand Strategy and New Media Age magazines discovered that 49% of users didn’t like ads appearing beside their personal social network profiles. Just 3% were very keen.

Even if consumers aren’t put off your brand by the ad, its placement can give the false impression of associations where none exist. Last month, Vodafone was forced to pull its advertising from Facebook after it was informed that its ads were running alongside the British National Party. This was not intentional, as the ads were simply on a random loop, but came as a nasty shock for the mobile business.

So what can brands do to make social networks a safer environment? First, accept that places like Facebook can never be controlled. While it is very trendy to talk about “user-generated content”, most brands would rather be in charge of the way their identity is presented to the world than allow strangers do it. This is simply not possible with social networks and you have to understand that.

Second, don’t try to fit the brand where it doesn’t fit. There is no point mocking up a youth-friendly “funny” group on Facebook if you are an insurance company. Think carefully about why you want to be involved with social networks in the first place. Are your customers really there?

Third, monitor social networks and act on what you find. If you find protest groups, don’t view them as a disaster but free feedback. Follow HSBC’s lead and respond to any negative situations. If you find fan groups, why not offer them special gifts or prizes so you can boost word-of-mouth? The members of “Addicted To Coca-Cola” would probably love to know about a competition to design a new Coke can.

Fourth, you cannot stop staff from using Facebook and making negative comments about your brand, or even behaving in inappropriate ways. Treat this as an insight into your employees’ mentality to find out where you need to put some work in. This is the kind of information you would never normally see – make use of it.

Finally, companies have been using the language of friendship for years, talking about “relationships” with customers and building up “brand personalities”. Social networks are merely massive friendship groups. If your brand really is a friend, it will be invited in. If not, perhaps you need to spend less time logging into Facebook and more time on your strategy.

Ruth Mortimer is editor of Brand Strategy

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