This is a paper I wrote for a technology in marketing class last semester. I uploaded it to a site called Scribd so you can view it online. Click here to view the full paper if you can't see it below.
TECHNOLOGY IN MARKETING
Representing and Misrepresenting Yourself on Social Networks: A Cautionary Tale for Marketers
by Amy Pospiech 12/16/2008
This assignment is an individual research paper on the topic of social and ethical issues of technology. The issue is authenticity in social networks as it relates to public policy and marketing. Includes a summary of different perspectives or responses; conclusions and implications for marketers and public policy makers.
Social networks are now a big part of mainstream culture in America and throughout other parts of the world. Facebook, myspace, Flickr, blogs, YouTube, and all aspects of Web 2.0 are now literally used by everyone and their mothers (Elevenmoms 2008), in some cases even babies (Menscher 2008) and plants (Bray 2008) – sort of. Because of their ease of use and widespread adoption, many creative uses of the internet and Web 2.0 have developed, not only by tech-savvy individuals but by consumers, kids, artists, and marketers with a little time and energy. However, amidst all this content, it can be easy to get lost, confused, or frustrated. A user may begin to wonder, “How reliable or credible is the source of this information?” “Who is actually responsible for the creation of this content and what purpose does it serve?” “Is this content purely for entertainment or does the author have some hidden agenda?” Sometimes, a misleading video, article, website, or social networking profile may be seen as malicious, misguided, or worthless, and the author is either condemned or ignored. Other times, a creative case of misrepresentation may be praised and lauded throughout the community even after it has been “discovered.” It seems that the issue is one of authenticity. Especially now, with more marketers and businesspeople entering the Web 2.0 circle for professional rather than personal purposes, consumers are delighted to point out when someone has failed to adequately disclose their purpose. Even with proper disclosure, some users are upset by ideas like “Pay-per-Post” which damages the “integrity” of a blogger’s personal and respected opinion. For example, Chris Brogan’s “Sponsored Post-Kmart Holiday Shopping Dad Style” was enough to set the tweet-o-sphere (via Twitterers) and the blogosphere (via Bloggers) on fire, even though it clearly stated that it was a sponsored post in the title and first few lines of text, and it appeared on his Dad-O-Matic blog. Some responses were along the lines of, “My beef is that I would rather hear from a real shopper. Can’t Kmart find *someone* who’s shopped there for years who wants to tell you and me why they like Kmart?”(Fialkoff 2008) and “I think he caught flack due to the brand he chose to associate with.” (Singer 2008). So the issue here was not just whether the post was sponsored, but whether it was solicited or “real,” even though it was seemingly a favorable matchup for both parties. Chris Brogan is a well-respected social media maven. He is “a ten year veteran of using social media and technology to build digital relationships for businesses, organizations, and individuals. Chris speaks, blogs, writes articles, and makes media of all kinds at [chrisbrogan.com], a blog in the top 20 of the Advertising Age Power150, and in the top 100 on Technorati” (Brogan 2008). It made sense for Kmart to choose such a high-profile blogger to raise awareness for their brand. But the approach may have seemed too market-y, as Chris Brogan was only leveraging his status as “dad” for the brand which, perhaps, he had not capitalized on before this sponsorship. To avoid this problem, analyst Jeremiah Owyang states that when doing sponsored posts, “Bloggers will simply have to ensure that they are delivering trusted content to their audience (transparent), and it’s relevant to their current topics (authentic). If readers are going to a tech blog, and expecting tech content, they may be surprised if the content shifts to a different medium – like consumer goods… The good thing about the blogosphere is that it self corrects, the community members will let the blogger know what they do and don’t like – it happens every day” (2008). Certainly, this is a case where the blogosphere shows its self-correcting nature. In response to the negative feedback on Twitter and in the blogosphere, Chris wrote his own post, justifying his choice for doing the sponsored post. It included his relationship with the sponsoring company, Izea (formerly associated with the controversial Pay-per-Post), and his wanting to “experiment” with the paid post system. His response to the buzz about the “purity” of the blogging platform and the internet was, “My job isn’t to keep the Kumbaya chants going. It’s to equip businesses (and that’s on the blogger side *and* the big business side) with knowledge and actionable next steps” (Brogan 2008). This entry, entitled “Advertising and Trust,” received 222 comments of its own in just over three days, with the original paid post receiving over 400, as entries into Kmart’s holiday contest. So the post exposed two things: First, a sponsored post must be a perfect alignment between blogger and sponsor, or else it will come off as fake and potentially weaken the reputation of both parties involved. Second, even a misaligned sponsorship can generate some buzz about a brand or contest, and may generate some excitement from those that aren’t upset over the whole sponsorship idea, such as these bloggers: “Kmart was very smart at reaching out to Chris Brogan. Far away from scholastic definitions of marketing and social media, Chris Brogan has a heart. His followers know it. What is the value of that? I think you -and Kmart- will find out” (Hart 2008) and, “After all he is a blogger who works in the business and marketing field, giving useful advice for free and never too busy to reply to a serious email or tweet. He’s not some kind of anarchist grimly struggling against authority and many of the usual suspects in Chris Brogan’s blogosphere salivate over the chance to get paid to blog” (Cox 2008). So, while some people feel slighted by the idea of paid posts and endorsements, or even jealous that they’re not getting paid for their own opinions yet, others don’t mind them and see them as a normal part of business (“you’ve got to live”)or a positive aspect of the blogosphere when executed correctly. Owyang also mentions that “recent research shows that corporate blogs are not trusted, but we know that consumers trust their peers, so savvy brands will want to benefit from word of mouth” (Owyang 2008). Yet this case study shows that there is more to it than soliciting “peers” to advocate a brand, as these “peers” must not only spark a reader’s interest, but their trust. They must be seen as speaking from the heart, and advocating a brand because of its application to their particular area of expertise, adding value for the readers of the blog. Finally, a sponsorship must feel organic, not contrived. Another case where marketers have tried to use well-known figures to promote their brand, to a mild degree of success, is with AT&T’s new campaign, “Lost in America.” This campaign consists of a video series featuring two young starlets being taken on random adventures throughout the country. Unlike the Chris Brogan sponsorship, these characters were chosen based on their relevance to the target market of the company. According to girls’ bios on the site: Karen: Karen has a very healthy and normal obsession with social media, fruit and "The Wizard of Oz". She is heavily involved in online social communities like Facebook and Twitter and enjoys trying out new web technologies. She continues to shoot and edit short videos whenever inspiration strikes and regularly blogs on her site karenism.com about technology, film and food. iJustine: With a catalog of more than 300 videos and 3,000 photos published online, Ezarik "is the Internet". A connoisseur of all things Internet, a gadget girl and a comedienne; iJustine represents a new kind of media star. Interesting to note, iJustine was first made famous by her extremely lengthy iPhone bill, making her the perfect selection for AT&T’s campaign. There are currently 16 “episodes” posted at attlostinamerica.com; the first one is titled “Alaska Ep. 1 'The Drop-Off’” and described: “In the premiere episode of Lost In America, our participants Justine & Karen are dumped out of a van in different parts of Anchorage, Alaska.” Similar episodes follow, with the girls using only their AT&T phones to navigate their way around the country. While the sponsorship is clearly evident, the campaign received some heat from an AdAge reporter, “The series is heavy on AT&T, but light on storyline, unless you find it interesting that Justine could be booted out of the competition if she drops her phone a fifth time” (Learmonth). So, here is an example of a perfectly-matched partnership between two social media mavens and a tech company, but because it is so overtly promotional in nature and lacking real “content,” it has received little buzz and the viewer stats aren’t as impressive as, say, iJustine’s own YouTube channel. Moving from weak sponsorships and partnerships, there are some inspiring examples of unsolicited brand advocacy which have generated some attention in the Web 2.0 world. One to note is the Darth Vader character from Star Wars who tweets regularly. Clearly, it is not Darth Vader himself behind the mask. Or is it? He stays remarkably on-character and his tweets are entertaining enough, or strange enough, to command a large following. An example of a tweet which does not advocate a particular brand but jives with the current economy: “Tarkin says we have to make cut backs. Stupid union clone troopers make $70 an hour and naturally, there's like a million of them. 3:59 PM Dec 12” and one which apparently does advocate a brand: “Totally had Tarkin convinced they named Black Friday after me. He was waffling until I whipped out my Vader Master Card - http://bit.ly/UAeh 9:20 PM Nov 28.” The link takes the user to a Darth Vader Master Card promotion. (Note: Tarkin is another Star Wars character). While it doesn’t seem that Darth Vader receives any type of a compensation for his work, he has over 20,000 followers and could drive significant traffic to another site. The point is: here is someone who remains anonymous and takes on the persona of a famous character. His “followers” know it’s not really Darth Vader behind the tweets as much as they know it’s not really Santa who delivers presents on Christmas morning, but it’s the kind of thing people don’t mind seeing because it is entertaining and even a bit inspiring. And it doesn’t even matter who the guy or girl behind the tweets really is, or if they’re paid off or not. Of course, if some individual was contracted to make a Twitter account and try to generate “buzz,” the stream might not be as popular, seeming phony and scripted. Yet, if that individual were James Earl Jones, well then you might have a quality social media implementation. The point is not to try to “fool” users, but to use spoofs that are highly-entertaining or obvious. In previous years of Web 2.0, some marketers and public relations staff misused technology, such as forums and review sites to post positive feedback on their own products, generating bad PR and backlash from the community. This was a violation of user’s trust and pitted them against the evil “marketers” who violated their social spaces. In current years of Web 2.0, public relations staff has become overly protective of their brand and brand image, and now the marketers don’t trust the users, either. There is a concern over copyright infringement and of course, fear that someone else may destroy a brand’s image through parodies and spoofs via sites such as YouTube and blogging platforms. It comes as no surprise, then, that when unsponsored “Mad Men” characters from AMC’s fading TV series set in the 1960’s started signing up for online profiles and gaining a large following, the parent company AMC reacted. The “characters” Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, and Pete Campbell were supposed employees of Sterling Cooper Advertising from 1962 and, consistent with the television drama, their Tumblr.com and later Twitter.com presence maintained their characters’ voices. They offered advice to other users and even a subtext to the television series. However, when AMC discovered what was happening, they took a fearful approach. Twitter was contacted and the offending accounts suspended. This attempt at controlling the “fan fiction” may have caused even more damage than good; the company’s negative response was the call to action for a website, WeAreSterlingCooper.com, with the manifesto, “Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it's not going away. We're your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets cancelled we'll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don't treat us like criminals” (Caddell 2008). Many blog articles and Twitter streams were created as a result of this. “As lawyers often do, their threats had created far more controversy and negative publicity than the fans could have possibly threatened” (2008). The website offers links to many of them, as well as a downloadable 11-page .pdf documenting the series of events, called “Becoming A Mad Man,” written by one of the Mad Men named Bud Melman, real name Bud Caddell . His account was not one of the 9 shut down by AMC because his presence was invented solely online and not in the series itself. Caddell acted as a facilitator in the post-suspension phase, gathering all the Twitter users and concerned members of the community together to create unity and determine their purpose. He writes: When I asked why each person had chosen to start twittering as a fictional character from a television show, the answers were varied but shared a consistent theme: love. Our strange new behaviors and identities were the result of an advanced relationship to the world of AMCʼs Mad Men. It was our appreciation of the subject matter, the writing, the acting, and the product as a whole that spurred our expression. We were contributing freely, and no conversation about compensation was had. We were operating under the typical fan community “gifteconomy.” But regardless of why we got started, we all saw this as an opportunity to prove a model, that fans and brands should work together and create together (and we all still hoped AMC would respond to us). We were all very much invested in the success of our characters as a new form of engagement and as a way to create more meaning and relevance with fans. So, with all of this Web 2.0 jumble of good-and-evil content, how do marketers ensure the consistency of their brand image and message, while promoting active user communities? It seems that the trick is a mixture of “listening in” along with “guerrilla” tactics that make use of current user communities. If consumers are creating positive fan fiction and it does not harm your own company’s reputation, message, etc., then let it live. Promote it. Encourage the authors. Feature them in a press release. Do an interview with them. Link to their sites / content. E-mail them. Friend them. Whatever the case, if they already love your brand enough to spend significant time developing content about it, it’s almost guaranteed that they’d appreciate the recognition. If the number of self-help blogs and articles written recently is any indication, and the number of replies many of them receive (Chris Brogan’s included), this is certainly the case. So a starving creative would most likely be thrilled by a contact from a real company that they have a pre-existing passion for. Marketers, pay attention! On the other hand, if negative content is created, a marketer should do more of the listening before reacting like AMC’s representatives. Figure out what’s wrong. Solicit opinions. Ask how the product / service can be improved. By asking to shut down a popular user profile or by threatening to remove objectionable content, a company representative will fuel the hatred that was brewing when the content was being created. Do not upset the influential users of the Web 2.0 world, as they will surely make it known to others and find a way around the obstacles being superficially created for them. They can always set up a copycat website, create a new profile, etc. This is the gift and the curse of the ever-changing, constantly updated, collaborative Web 2.0 revolution. In soliciting feedback rather than attempting to remove some misrepresented facts or opinions, a marketer / PR representative can act in a proactive, rather than a reactive or protectionist manner. This will cast the company or brand in a much better light. The author may even change their opinion, or reveal that they don’t even mind the brand all that much anyway, as was the famous case where Starbucks attempted to sue comic-book illustrator Kieron Dwyer for making a spoof of their logo. Dwyer’s green-and-white siren carries a cell phone and coffee cup, and is tagged with the text “consumer whore.” However, he didn’t really mind the brand all that much – just the waste that came to his neighborhood once Starbucks moved in. It was only after the lawsuit that he stopped drinking their frap’s every morning. He writes, “as much as I was mocking Starbucks and their rampant consumerism, there was also self-awareness and some irony to it because I was mocking myself and everybody else who was making their way like lemmings off a cliff to Starbuck’s every day” (Dwyer ). Sure, the logo was offensive, but a polite notice or initiation of a conversation with Dwyer would have sufficed to have its circulation halted. At that point, if Dwyer was unresponsive, a lawsuit may have been necessary, but not before. From a public relations perspective, the approach of Starbucks was uncalled for. After all, isn’t Web 2.0 all about engaging your customers with conversation? Armando Alves, author of the blog A Source of Inspiration, writes about the “brandjacking” phenomenon and how companies can prevent or control it. “Brand Hijacking happens when consumers appropriate the brand for themselves and add meaning to it… brands should act as facilitators, opening communication channels and providing tools and materials (if you’re really hip, wrap it around a Creative Commons license) to consumers” (2008). He highlights the Mad Men story described earlier and goes on to list some best practices for companies to prevent a user from completely abusing the system, including: 1. Register your brand/product name early. 2. Define procedures for brand hijacking as one of your social media best practices. A simple social media policy will do. 3. Get your voice. Is it a push model, or do you actually engage with the users? Delegated or internal? Formal or Informal? 4. Provide aggregation mechanisms. 5. Track your brand buzz. 6. Have a consistent alias/nickname in different services. These suggestions will help prevent such practices as cybersquatting, where a user registers a domain name similar to your own brand, with negative intentions – either for money or recognition. Even so, brandjacking may occur in obscure ways, so companies must always monitor social sites to discover relevant discussions and user profiles, whether intended for creative entertainment or not. One realistic example of brandjacking which occurred this summer was an “employee” of Exxon Mobil’s via a Twitter page. Janet’s completely unverified posts went along the lines of: "we are not an earth hating organization, and we’re working on hard to improve how we drill for oil, these are difficult times. we used revenues as reinvestment into R&D. In 2007 we invested $21bil in refining capacity to reduce the future cost of petroleum. Did You Know? ExxonMobil reduced its Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 5 million metric tons from 2006 to 2007! ExxonMobil’s primary concern is to safely provide reliable and affordable supplies of energy to people around the world" Within three days “Janet” was discovered to be a fake. Here is the response of Alan Jeffers, a real an Exxon employee: “There are only people that are authorized and not-authorized, even people with the best intentions, may not know what the appropriate position is or the facts, we think that there’s a problem, as we don’t want to be misleading people and there’s a lot of errors what the person is posting even if it was something that had the best of intentions could be misleading. It’s our perception that social networking is based on honesty, transparency and trust, it’s important that they become forthcoming about who they represent” (Owyang 2008). While this brandjacking only lasted for three days before it was discovered, if it had gone on for longer it could have caused some real damage to the company, since she had most of the Twitter community’s belief and support behind her. When she was discovered, she even refused to take down her account and give in, claiming she was in fact “an employee of ExxonMobil, who has decided to put forward her pride in her own company” (Diaz). But since verifiable Exxon executives denounced any relations to her, the feed has since been removed. This case highlights a slightly scarier view of social media: that users blindly trust certain content, such as this Twitter page, because it offers them opinions that they want to hear. Perhaps this “Janet” was just a means to reassure a failing economic landscape that someone is there to help, or perhaps “Janet” is a huge nutcase who actually just thinks of her lying self as an Exxon brand advocate. But comparing that to the Chris Brogan case and the other “brand advocacy” cases where sponsorship was involved, and the situation becomes even more interesting. A fully-disclosed sponsorship agreement from two credible sources received a lot of negative heat, even though both brands were well-liked and respected in general. An undisclosed, unverified brand advocate for a generally un-liked brand (i.e. Exxon Valdez) receives more “hmm, stinks for Exxon” reactions than “how dare she/they!” And if she were an actual employee, doesn’t that necessitate her payment for this undertaking? So it can’t be about the paid / unpaid thing. This whole “social media networking” seems to be a bit finicky. People weren’t sure whether the Mad Men were sanctioned by AMC, but they didn’t care as the accounts were not representative of real people, but characters playing a role in a fictional drama set in the 1960’s. They were entertaining. Darth Vader uses a similar setup where he plays a role, regardless of whether he’s backed by the Star Wars creators or not. Fellow Twitterers don’t expect him to be a real person and follow him simply for amusement. No one really criticized “Janet” for her blatant misrepresentations, but instead wishes that Exxon would get involved in conversations with consumers in the future. No one can even criticize iJustine partnering with AT&T, because she was essentially made famous with the iPhone, so her approach is totally on-brand and in character, albeit a bit tired and dull. But Chris Brogan, Pay-per-Post, used car salesmen, and salesmen in general appear “unauthentic,” receiving plenty of criticism and negative attitudes. Sure, they get some sales sometimes. Overall, the best idea for a marketer: don’t stick your brand where it doesn’t belong, and where it already exists, find the most enthusiastic supporters and listen before acting. Figure out what’s working. Find the right community, find people who already love your brand, and foster that community to promote the brand equity that is already growing there. Don’t get too “market-y” or “sell-y” with users, or it will deteriorate the authenticity of that blog, forum, partnership, brand, etc. That doesn’t mean every “fan fiction” or derivative work must be removed: on the contrary, if something is authentically enthusiastic, onbrand, or otherwise engaging in a positive way, it should be cultivated and nurtured like a little plant who tweets. Something as “false” as a talking plant can still be “authentic” if done correctly.
Alves, Armando. “Social Media and Brand Hijacking.” September 3, 2008. Accessed December 12, 2008.
Update: the discussion continues.
- Tom Smith: "Why We All Benefit From Big Brands Being in Social Media" on March 8;
- Alison Driscoll: "Do We Really Want to Friend Fido and a Fetus?" on April 15;
- And finally, Izea, the evil "pay-per-post" founders (just kidding...er): "Sponsored Tweets : 10k Users" on July 30;
How's that for dinnertime discussion?