Friday, April 10, 2009

License to shill.

I heard a terrible story from a colleague this week. It went like this:

A perfectly decent marketer I know of hired a ‘social media consultant’ to help them get the cool kids talking about their brand. A sensible move for them, since these particular cool kids like to hang out on the internets. And here is what this ‘social media consultant’ was going to do: They were going to troll internet forums posing as consumers, chatting up the marketer’s brand as if they had bought the product with their own money and been converted to evangelists by its unalloyed glory.

It almost made me nostalgic for advertising. With ads, no matter how outrageous the claim may be be, at least you know who’s doing the talking.

The growth of social media has, as they say on Wall Street, gone parabolic. The historic US presidential campaign of last fall mainstreamed this stuff almost overnight. And the economy’s troubles have produced a tidal wave of outreach and community building as people connect with each other for comfort, information, and work. It’s been a perfect storm. Unfortunately, though, that storm has washed some crap onto the beach. Whether it’s the kind of shilling I described above, or fake YouTube videos and Facebook fan pages, or the practice of hiring ghostwriters to ruminate as celebrities on Twitter, scoundrels and cynics have pounced on this opportunity in a way we haven’t seen since spammers learned to spell ‘Nigerian royalty’.

For brands, I think this is terrifying. Once upon a time, you see, brands used to be like little dictatorships. They made their own rules, and they relied on propaganda to sustain themselves. But now, brands are republics. They are engaged in ongoing conversations with their marketplaces, and they rely on dialogue, transparency and a point of view to get elected and stay in office. Authenticity has never mattered more than it does right now.

But authenticity is powerless in an environment where suspicion has become the default state. Somehow, we have to resist that. With mass media running for the lifeboats in a storm of their own, the ability to connect with consumers this way might just be branded marketing’s last, best hope.

As long, that is, as everybody knows who’s doing the talking.