Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The New Caveat Emptor - Marketing On Blogs, Social Networking And User-Generated-Content Sites

Recognizing The Opportunity Is Great But So Are The Risks

We have entered a brave, new world for brands - the world of blogs, social-networking sites (MySpace, Facebook), and user-generated-content sites (YouTube). These are new, powerful channels allowing anyone and everyone to share thoughts, opinions, truths, lies, half-truths, and rumors with the world with impunity. And once it's out there, it's out there.

Recently their impact has been seen in a number of areas - politics (influencing political agendas both for and against candidates), entertainment (promoting new movie releases and exposing some anti-social behavior by Messrs. Gibson and Richards), and civil rights (videos of alledged police brutality) for example.

Some brands have announced pilots to explore these channels for marketing purposes using both overt and stealth methods. Stealth meaning sponsoring bloggers to promote their brands in the course of their blogging without the customary disclosures of being a paid spokesperson. This has been given the term - flogging.

Make no mistake about it, there is great promise to these new channels for brands, but there are also great risks and the risks must be qualified or there are immeasurable consequences - a Pandora's Box.

Here are suggestions to avoid problems when working with these new channels
  1. Brands must have absolute control over the editorial environment it chooses to be a part of. Sponsoring a channel that exercises no control over what it posts with regard to generally acceptable social behavior and good taste could result in a consumer backlash against the brand despite later apologies and cessation of the sponsorship. This is not a matter of stepping on anyone's First Amendment rights to free speech. It is a matter of being empathetic to the sensitivities of consumers.

  2. A brand deciding to use these new channels should appoint an ombudsman to oversee these channels on the brand's behalf. The role of the ombudsman is to resolve issues where the brand and the channel are in disagreement. This must be done before the fact not after "the horses are out of the barn".

  3. Insure the sponsorship of the channel is transparent for consumers with proper disclosures on the nature of the relationship.
  4. Demand measurement metrics for the investment audited by a third party.

  5. Negotiate a quick out termination clause if the brand is threatened. Don't pass GO. Don't collect $200. Get out fast.

Can these channels be an important component of a brand's marketing mix. Of course, but new channels require more oversight and scrutiny. This responsibility cannot be delegated to third parties. There is simply too much at stake.