Are Social Media Rules Defined By Transgression?

It feels like every week we see another company or organization launch itself into social media, only to get beaten down by the blogosphere. Last week it was Skittles; this week it’s Facebook redesigning its site (again).

But where do rules to which we hold these companies come from?

Listening to an old episode of CBC’s Spark podcast today, I noticed Mitch Joel posed an excellent question:

Do we define social media rules by their transgression?

How many of these “rules” exist before someone breaks them, and how many are made up once people decide they don’t like companies’ actions?

Sometimes it’s obvious.

But what about others? What about the rules that aren’t as clear, and that only become apparent when people get upset about others contravening them (even though they don’t exist yet)?

What about Burger King’s Facebook app that offered a whopper to users who sacrificed a few long-lost high-school friends for a whopper? Where were the rules about that written? What about companies who use humour in their online campaigns (Motrin, for example) and get crucified when others find it offensive rather than funny?

These are two examples; rather than focus on those I want to look at the bigger picture.

Does the blogosphere takes people and companies to task for breaking rules that don’t yet exist?

  • Just like in the “material” world, rules and etiquette are fluid from one human being to another – everyone has a set of boundaries that is more or less defined, but that varies greatly between individuals. For instance, it’s polite to queue to get in the bus but if you don’t, peer pressure will let you know you’ve done wrong. I think the same is true of social media – cross somebody’s boundaries and they will let you know you’ve gone too far.

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  • Isn’t advertising/marketing supposed to be about breaking the rules? Isn’t being first more important than being “right?” Shouldn’t we give brands more credits for trying to make it BETTER instead of making it PERFECT? Sometimes folks in the industry are overly critical at “breaking the rules!”

    Yes, it would be helpful to establish some type of structure and guidelines for social media marketing. But we all live and learn. If we don’t constantly push the boundaries, the brand & the marketing effort will just get lost in the noise.

    Rather than putting those examples on the “failure” list, maybe we shall acknowledge the good intention & offer suggestions to improve social media implementation.

    We were disappointed when Motrin simply took down their ad when they could incorporate mommy bloggers’ comments to make a new text-based ad.

    Many of us raised our thumbs when we saw Skittle’s brave movement. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, far from it. But it is a breakthrough for CPG brands, they showed us they want to get closer to the consumers…

    Looking back at the most popular ad campaigns in our history, we welcomed rule-breaking, didn’t we? As long as we stand by the fundamental principles of social media, blogosphere or rather internet should still be a boundary-less territory for ideas that bring people together. Dream on, folks!

  • There are no rules… the only people who talk about rules are communicators (marketers, pr, etc…) who have opinions about how well something has been researched or executed. there are case studies and best practices, but each is custom and particular to a brand and audience.

    generally, the criticism online from bloggers or people on twitter is heard most ferociously from those who want to position themselves as knowledgeable through criticism – I see far more criticism of execution (not to say they aren’t right, or often right) than I do promotion of good work done by those same people. this falls into the whole “who’s a social media expert” conversation.

    there are no rules – there is only success or failure, to some degree or another. success is judged against the goals set by the executors of that campaign.

    if we call something a rule, we are saying that something that didn’t work for one person wouldn’t work for anyone – or at least, that’s how it sounds.

  • I think its really two sided. On the one hand social media and even the internet ( happy 20 years!) are too new to have exact rules or codes of conduct compared to more established mediums such as TV or radio. While some ethics are based on what should not be done on these mediums there are a lot of rules that aren’t relevant/don’t apply.

    But I also think that these ‘new rules’ are already partly entrenched in what we think is right/wrong.

    -Skittles: on the internet nobody likes to be spammed , and in the end people noticed that they were being bombarded with skittle hashtags and given no actual value.

    -Walmart/Sony/Wikipedia were all about transparency be it that they weren’t transparent about who was behind the advertisement or that companies felt that they could censor others and just show a positive view of themselves online. Customers don’t like feeling being lied to.

    In the end I think companies/people are given negative feedback when its felt that they did something ethically wrong or just pushed the limit to far. As a result companies need to be sensitive to who their audience is and how they may react perhaps even having a bailout plan in place if things blow up in their face.

  • Social media rules seem to be defined by value and values. If a social media marketing tactic provides no value (a la Skittles), a community (not “the” community) rises up in protest. Alternatively, if a community feels that their values are violated (e.g. Facebook’s T.o.S debacle), they will cry out that a social media “rule” has be broken.
    Dave, you’ve mentioned several times the need for organizations to accurately define a target audience for any communications program. In the case of social media rules, does it matter if one group feels your program broke a rule if they weren’t your target to begin with?

  • The issue with Skittles for me is not that they broke “rules” Really there are few rules to go by. Sure we all want to see transparency, we want to feel that there is respect for the user and we want to feel that the advertiser doesn’t think we’re all stupid.

    In the case of Skittles the campaign itself was shallow and rather silly. They didn’t break and rules per se, it just wasn’t up to the hype.

    With Sony Playstation and the Walmart flogs it was blatantly insulting, and that could have easily been avoided by letting people know up-front that it was a spoof.Walmart could have been seen as brilliant with the “RV across America” stunt if they would have positioned it as a reality TV show, but instead they tried to slip it by as real and left with egg on their face.

    So the short answer is: when companies (or individuals) try to game social media they are more likely to get called on it simply because it IS social media. This is a vocal space and if you want to play you have to be willing to take a lickin’ if you get caught doing something foolish.

  • I don’t think it was as much “rules” as it was “opinion”, Dave. When something changes, you’ll normally have three camps – For, Against, and Who Cares.

    Some people like what these companies did and said so, while others didn’t and made their feelings clear. Did some go over the top in the criticism? Perhaps. Yet isn’t that just the same offline? 😉

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