Social Media: Anti-Social, Or An Opportunity For Influence?

“Are sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube making it easier for customers to hate you?”

Head in the sand

This was the question posed by Timothy Taylor in a Globe and Mail story entitled “anti-social media”¬†yesterday. Using examples such as product faults (he cites Dell’s exploding batteries, although I think they were made by Sony…) and contest results (Nissan Cube), he asks the reader to consider whether social media may give voice to critics as much as to companies.

In his concluding words, “Everything that makes social media such a powerful tool for brand awareness also makes it a tempting platform for brand sabotage.”

Here’s my take.

The toothpaste is out of the tube

Taylor is certainly right in (at least) one respect – social media does give have the potential voice to a company’s critics. Unfortunately for the naysayers, though, the horse has already bolted on that one. Social media tools have been doing that for coming up to ten years now, and I don’t see this going away any time soon.

With that said, let’s face it – if your laptop caught fire (regardless of the manufacturer), you’d be talking about it. If social media weren’t around, it might be with a smaller group of friends but it might also be to your favourite reporter… and the news would still get out.

Social media tools, used properly, can do several things for companies:

  1. Provide an early warning mechanism – social media monitoring can give you an early heads-up when an issue is brewing. Nowadays, social media users don’t just report the news – they often spark it. Dell’s Richard Binhammer once said that social media gives the company a two-week heads-up on news that may break in traditional media. While I imagine that timeframe has shrunk over the two years or so since then as traditional media have clued-in to the online space, it’s still an important point.
  2. Provide insurance in advance – social media tools can help you to put a face (or multiple peoples’ faces) on an otherwise faceless organization. The relationships that you can build through that process probably won’t save you when something goes wrong, but it can make people (a) pause and ask if something is true rather than jumping to a conclusion and (b) take a more balanced view of the issue than they might otherwise.
  3. Provide an opportunity to respond – these new channels – blogs, social networks, etc – give people more of a voice than before, but they also give companies a voice where previously they had none beyond the mass media.

Bottom line: Far from losing control, these new online tools provide an opportunity for influence where companies previously had none.

Is that a good thing?

I guess it depends on whether you’re open to thinking differently about your communications with customers, or whether you’re pretending you can put the conversation back in the tube.

What do you think?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.