Thursday, June 14, 2012

Phonies.

Sweetie’s cat knows it’s not allowed on our bed. Unless, of course, it sees me heading out the door with a suitcase in my hand. Then it’s there like a shot, curling up all pretty-like right where I’ll lay my allergic head when I return home. They say you can’t train a cat, but it’s not true. They can, in fact, train themselves. It’s just that they only learn things that are useful to them. The rest is mere noise. Where social media is concerned, I think the same might be true for more than a few brands these days, and it’s giving me the same sort of allergic reaction, if only metaphysically. Let me explain:

One of the things that social media’s first wave of experts understood very well is that they have to carefully manage their own narratives in forums like Twitter. They know that their streams become a record that reveals something about their personal brands, so they’re careful about what they say publicly. From early in the game, a lot of them, even while preaching the religion of engagement, wouldn’t even respond to people who had significantly fewer followers than they did for fear of bestowing the gift of their reflected influence too cheaply. Silence is the one thing Twitter doesn’t keep a record of, so it’s the tool they used to deal with dissenting views and social climbers. It still goes on, and the hypocrisy of it can be grating sometimes. Just this week, I tweeted a link to a piece of research to social media pioneer who shall remain nameless, a piece of research that conflicted with his point of view in a hashtag discussion (the study, ironically, showed that consumers were gravitating away from social influence and back to brands as guides for decision making). He waved it off with a single tweet and then simply stopped talking to me. Debate wasn’t going to make his stream look very authoritative. Okay, I get it. It’s not very brave, but it’s understandable.

The problem is that there are some brands out there who have been very quick to learn this trick, even if the rest of social media’s subtleties have eluded them. I’m a consumer just like the rest of us, but as you can imagine I also have a special interest in the democratizing power of social media in marketplaces. Or at least in its potential. So in the spirit of Consumer Republic’s broken toaster fable, I occasionally reach out to brands that way. Most of the ones that seem committed to public dialogue are. Some are crafty enough to take conflict offline so that all we can see on the public record is that they cared. But some are simply bloody-mindedly selective about whom they’ll engage with. In recent months, with brands as diverse as Air Canada, John Deere, Jawbone and the retailer Sporting Life, I’ve been on the short end of a few cases in point. Hi, there, famous brand. I have a problem. Can you help? Silence. Sure, maybe somebody had a bad day or was on a bathroom break, but it happens often enough that you know it’s as likely to be a tactic. Either way, I’m left to decide, before my overture vanishes from the browser window like a setting sun, whether I want to let it go or risk my reputation by fulminating about it to my own network. Nice. Not exactly the conversational utopia those Cluetrainers promised us.

In the long run, I think we’d all be better off if companies who don’t intend to honestly engage in these forums simply didn’t show up at all. In an ethical sense, it’s a pretty low thing to hang out your shingle on Facebook or Twitter, and then pantomime a fictional relationship with your marketplace. But, more practically, I think we need to remind ourselves – we stewards of brands – that consumer credulity is not an infinitely renewable resource. We’re operating in a world in which trust is the only real foundation for enterprise value anymore. I hate to think of what would happen if we fouled this nest, of what marketing would be like if we had to deal with a terminally cynical consumer. Sweetie’s cat enjoys the formidable protection of Sweetie, and an apparently unlimited number of second chances. We will not be so lucky. If we see the consumer heading out this door suitcase in hand, it may well be for the last time.

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