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Can brands control their message using social media?

An email for a conference arrived the other day, and it enticed me with the tag line:

Learning how to leverage Web 2.0 and Social Media sites to market your brand and control your message

This got me wondering can brands really control their message using social media?

One thing I know from experience with social media is that it is like quicksilver, easily slipping around barriers and constraints. The behaviour of people in social computing situations is mercurial and whimsical.  Sudden memes arise, become active and then die off as quickly as they came.

Social computing environments enable highly reactive and emotionally driven behaviour.  For example, often a rumour will circulate, followed by a wave of anger and reaction.  Then as facts filter through a more reasoned response develops.

However, these platforms also enable groups to mobilise quickly to address concerns and to take action on issues that galvanise them. In short, a bunch of people on a social network can sometimes behave just like a mob in real life.

This can work against brands very easily. Two great examples of this are the ‘Cotton On Kids saga‘ and ‘Motrin Moms mess’.

On the hand social media has enabled some true success stories, like Zappos and Comcast.

People who’ve been used to ‘controlling‘ their brands never had much opportunity for direct contact with their customers (apart from behind the glass at the odd focus group).  This seems to have reinforced the illusion that they were really in control of their brands. However, it is questionable if they really had control at any stage. Perhaps the absence of feedback simply provided an illusion of control?

But how can brands get their message out effectively using social media? Paradoxically, it seems that this can be achieved by letting go of attempts to control the brand in relation to social media.

This paradox of relaxation of control is exemplified by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh. By letting go and allowing customers interact with staff the brand was built up to such a degree that it was recently sold to Amazon for mega bucks. But this kind of approach requires a strong and confident CEO and a corporate culture that supports and nurtures the dialogue, openness and interaction.

The problem for brands is that navigating this hyperconnected and networked world requires a paradoxical relaxation of control. And not everyone has nerves strong enough to let go and to let people be free to interact.

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