The most vexed question in interactive marketing over the past five years has been that of control/ Who has it? And how far it reaches? But while many marketers still see social media as part of the problem in maintaining their hold on their brand’s identity, it’s evident that it can also be part of the solution.
Even before the rise of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, digital evangelists were talking enthusiastically about the way the internet gives people unprecedented control over their media experience. And the more excitable of those evangelists extended the idea to marketing, claiming that companies were no longer in control of their marketing. That control, they said, had passed to consumers, who by the way shouldn’t be called consumers any longer, since that suggested a passive role that also had been eliminated by interactive media. The neatest summary of this view I heard came from Johnny Vulkan, of New York agency Anomaly, who said “Brands are no longer what we tell people they are, they’re what their friends tell them they are.”
Since then, social networking sites have made making people’s discussions about brands even more accessible and obvious. Arguing about control now looks like the last gasp of pre-interactive thinking, as more and more brands accept the conversation model of marketing. Indeed, in the past few months New Media Age has reported a slew of brands abandoning the idea of building microsites to support their campaigns and choosing instead to centre their communications on social media sites.
But as marketers embrace the virtues of social media – its encouragement of feedback, its power to amplify messages, its perceived low cost – other aspects are barely acknowledged, and it’s in these areas that questions of control reappear.
These considerations came home to me at a recent event run by New Media Age’s sister website, Reputation Online, about online PR and crisis management. Co-founder of consultancy This Fluid World Jonathan MacDonald presented a case study of the media firestorm that engulfed
Transport for London last autumn after he filmed and blogged about a TfL worker telling an elderly passenger that he should be thrown under a train.
MacDonald’s main point was that TfL made no response, via either new or old media, during the crisis. But for me an equally interesting point was the one he made about the need to be prepared for such eventualities. He argued that the ubiquity of tools such as blogs and camera phones means the only safe assumption for companies to make is that everything they do is being monitored and recorded ready to be shared with the entire connected world.
He was talking about a potential PR crisis, but the implication is that every transaction involving every employee, whether with co-workers or with the public, is in the public domain and will be shared online if either party finds it in some way unsatisfactory.
This turns old ideas of media training on their head. In the past, companies chose which employees were allowed to talk to the media, and gave them training in how to do so. Now every employee is under media scrutiny, no matter what their level of seniority, experience or enthusiasm for the organisation. From the delivery worker on the doorstep to the CEO at a cocktail party, every conversation can potentially impact on a company’s brand and reputation, for better or worse. So the problem for organisations now is to make sure every employee understands not only their role in the way the brand is perceived, but also the brand values they need to convey.
At a conference a couple of years back, I heard someone from Dove talking about a key moment in the success of the Campaign for Real Beauty being when customer services was made to report back into the marketing department. Before that, the customer services role had been confined to sending samples to disgruntled customers. By making it part of marketing, the feedback loop was closed and vital information went to the marketing team instead of being lost.
Similarly, HR departments now need to see part of their role as marketing, as helping to communicate brand and corporate values to employees.
This was what an agency contact of mine was getting at last year when he said that companies are organised according to principles that no longer apply. He sees the role of interactive agencies as being to move beyond just helping companies with their digital marketing and to aid them in changing their structures to suit the new world.
And in doing so, social networking tools are going to be crucial, because a company’s values aren’t what the management think they are, they’re what the employees think they are.