Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social media and the boundaries of propriety

Posted in social networking and business, Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on October 30, 2010

A couple of days ago I posted a note to this blog, Social Media and Finding a Balance in the Face of Conflict. My intent in that posting was to at least briefly discuss a problem that many if not every organization will eventually face, if it in any way enters into the interactive online community. I said at the end of that posting that I will follow up on it as the particular incident that prompted its writing gets resolved. I will do that, but meanwhile, I want to add some background thoughts on this general topic.

When you control and manage your business or organization in a pre-Web, or an early generation Web 1.0 world, you hold what amounts to comprehensive control over your brand and message. You might not necessarily effectively exercise this control but it is there and available to you. In a Web 2.0 and interactive Web world, this type and level of control is no longer possible. And with that I both state the obvious and even trite, and at the same time gloss over a tremendous range of uncertainty and ambiguity. There is a saying to the effect that the devil is in the details, and for dealing with the day to day implications and complications of this set of issues, that expression really does apply.

When your business or organization functions in an interactive and highly participatory environment, you have to deal with and be able to distinguish between a wide range of voices that may or may not agree with or support your vision and understand of who you are and what you represent.

• This includes people who may or may not agree with you but who are simply expressing their personal opinions, based on their own experience: good, bad or mixed with your organization. In this, negative feedback can sometimes offer even more value to you than positive as can pinpoint precisely where you could most effectively make changes to better meet the needs of your customers.
• This also includes those who would use your branding and in ways that may be problematical for your business or organization and even if they are at least nominally supportive of it.
• Some of these are of course simply trying to gain advantage from your brand and at the expense of your organization too.
• This also includes those who speak out in support of you but in ways and with language that would cause problems for you. I have specific examples in mind as I write this bullet point, and simply add that really badly and even offensively stated support can happen and this does not offer you support in any way. It can even cause distinct harm and particularly where this colors public perception as to who you are and who would be your customers or clients.
• This also, I add, includes voices of disagreement that can cross the line into libel, and I would add competitor misbehavior here as well, where a competitor plays dirty by posting negatively about you to try to increase market share for themselves.

It is not always easy to tell which bullet point category a particular community sourced social media posting may even belong to. That can even include ambiguity as to whether a given message is on the whole supportive or detracting. And this means you have to listen and it means you have to review and analyze the messages flowing by in a much more nuanced way than was ever needed before – and with consideration as to where a message is posted, who its targeted audience is and how it phrases its content as well as for its content itself. And you have to be ready to respond accordingly, and with both vigor and restraint as appropriate.

Where should you draw a line and contest vigorously? Two categories come to mind for me with that. One is where even a nuanced, open minded review of what is said and how would lead you to see posted content as threatening your brand or your control of it. The other is where you find yourself confronted not with simple disagreement, whether well founded or not, but with malicious attack based in deliberate misinformation.

The later of these two situations came to mind for me when I initially read the review that I cite as a causal incident for my posting Social Media and Finding a Balance in the Face of Conflict. That particular incident is still ongoing, though I now have a way to respond on the site involved to this hostile community sourced voice, and where this problematical review is posted. But before you can effectively respond to an online challenge you first and foremost have to understand it and have a sound understanding as to its potential harm if unchallenged, and an understanding as to how best to respond in any case. You may not be able to control what others say and post, but you can control your own message and your own responses.

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