Social media – plan for the worst that can happen

As brands engage in social media they should expect a little trouble, Zaid Al-Zaidy, managing partner of Saint@RKCR/Y&R, outlines some of the pitfalls.

I recently read about Sainsbury’s new recipes-based conversation platform on Facebook and I thought, there’s yet another brand dipping their toe tentatively into the waters of social marketing.

I wish this campaign every success – clearly, it has been driven by consumer insight and a valid perspective on the role Sainsbury’s can play in the social stratosphere. So for all this I applaud the company and its off to a good start. But I can’t help thinking that with every tip-toe into the world of social media, brands are asking for trouble. Why? Because the majority of them haven’t planned for ’real’ conversations that rarely go according to plan.

What’s the worst that could happen? Is this a feasible scenario: consumer-generated recipe suggestions with nutritional value better than many of the ready-meal products that Sainsbury’s (and all their competitors) might actually sell? Highlighting a potential lack of brand integrity? Leading perhaps to a consumer demand that Sainsbury’s delist certain, high volume, high margin products?

Yes, I’m being purposefully bleak, solely to illustrate my point. We don’t spend enough time imagining what might happen when we open our doors to real conversation with real people. Instead, in our little insular marketing twitter-sphere, for instance, we can read hundreds of micro blog statements such as ’can social media drive sales?’, ’5 ways to measure the effectiveness of social media’, ’Dr Pepper, the worst thing that could happen happened’, ’10 rules of social media’, ’Coca-Cola launches global social media employee handbook to enable local conversation’, ’conversation marketing is it’ etc.

We post-rationalise and over-think. Isn’t the one thing we’ve learned about history that history hasn’t taught us anything?

Fundamentally, the art of social media is about ’the present’, the art of real-time marketing and critically dealing with conversations that don’t go quite to plan in our increasingly two-way consumer-empowered world.

Brands must plan for the worst that can happen – I don’t mean ’crisis management’ which is akin to looking for the closest fire escape. I mean ’the art of polite and interesting conversation’ that can turn nasty dialogue into one that actually propels your popularity and integrity amongst your consumers.

Some tips from me that I promise not to tweet:

1. Don’t forget that a single customer’s voice can be just as loud as yours
2. Monitor, listen hard to and never ignore tough conversation
3. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer
4. Respond quickly and politely
5. Don’t be seen to push your own agenda
6. Don’t fake a response – you’ll be found out
7. Try to distribute any ’corrective’ message through paid search
8. Provide information openly
9. Be human – humans are allowed to make errors, machines are not
10. Don’t cut the conversation short, because you’re in it for the long term now

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