- Tech & Gadgets
- BRW. lounge
Published 15 October 2012 11:03, Updated 21 November 2012 08:44
Social media was supposed to be the pinnacle of authentic marketing. Customers could give real-time feedback and brands could embrace their flaws. But a couple of stiff rulings against companies and the arrival of nifty moderation software have the experts worried.
“One of the things I’ve always said to my fellow marketers, when I was a marketer, was we have to be careful or marketing is going to ruin social media,” Gartner senior research analyst Jenny Sussin says. “If you don’t play by the rules of the page you’re on, one day people are going to find you way too noisy or disingenuous and they won’t be interested.”
It looks like the problem is going to be more about sincerity than noise. Companies have tentatively embraced social media but their marketing departments are increasingly wary. First it was missteps that had them concerned. The #qantasluxury Twitter hashtag quickly turned from a harmless marketing promotion to an embarrassment for the airline. Similarly a public take-down on ABC TV’s Media Watch left the South Australian Tourism Commission (and its agency KWP Advertising) blushing after glowing tweets about Kangaroo Island were found to be paid for. The celebrities who posted them, such as chef Matt Moran, TV personality Sophie Falkiner and singer Shannon Noll, had not disclosed they were paid to promote the destination to their many followers.
But lately it’s been rulings and statements by regulatory bodies that have put company marketing executives on edge. A ruling by the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) against vodka brand Smirnoff found that comments posted by its Facebook fans constituted marketing content and as such the company had a responsibility to ensure that they did not breach the advertising code. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission then said it would hold companies responsible for user-generated comments that made misleading claims about a product or service.
While many brands have slammed these decisions as commercially naive and not in keeping with the ethos of social media, there is also a sense that brands now have an excuse when it comes to deleting user comments.
The head of social media at public relations agency Haystac, Kristen Boschma, says it is unlikely that companies will rely on these rulings as a get out of jail free card and delete all negative or disparaging comments. “Any brand that wanted to delete negative comments and only create a happy consumer Utopia picture on their social media channel would be doing that now regardless of these rulings,” she says. “If they’re doing that now it’s only a matter of time before they’re caught out.”
Nonetheless, Boschma says the rulings have given companies a clearer framework on how they might deal with comments that could get them into trouble.
“The reaction I’ve certainly observed from brands is that they see the [ASB] ruling gives them the opportunity to standardise their approach,” she says.
That is, marketing professionals feel more confident about including a set of rules, on a Facebook page for example, which say “if you post material that breaches the following rules, we will remove your post”.
In the US, Sussin has observed a similar phenomenon with pharmaceutical companies posting rules on their Facebook pages to ensure they comply with strict regulations imposed by the Food and Drug Administration, which deal with the reporting of adverse effects of drugs. “The companies,” she says, “are saying, ‘Look we want to have an open dialogue here, we want to have a conversation but, just so you know, if the conversation moves in this direction, we’re going to have to take it down’.”
Now automated software tools make this process a bit easier. Marketing departments are using reputation management software that is set to pick up comments containing words, such as profanities, that match rules and delete them before they hit a Facebook wall. The jargon for this action is “pre-moderation”.
The tools also offer “post-moderation”, which can include posting an immediate standardised response (“to buy you time”, Boschma explains), pointing to a post as needing a manual check or urgent attention, for example if the software picked up negative sentiment that suggests an angry customer.
“The tools are useful because they help to cut down the time taken to knock out the obvious comments that would breach any standards or guidelines,” Boschma says. Quite a few of her clients use such software, she says.
BRW Fast Starter and linguistics technology company Appen Butler Hill has just acquired a US company, WikmanRemer, to develop similar software. Appen Butler Hill’s chief executive, Bill Pulver, says he is keen to move the company into social media moderation software, calling it “an extreme growth market”.
“The volumes of user-generated comment are exploding,” he says. “There’s a very serious challenge there for brand marketers and virtually all corporations on managing content which might include profanity or legal issues.”
Pulver explains that the software could be set simply to delete all disparaging comments but says he doubts this would be good practice.
“If a marketer wants a completely sterile website, he can have a completely sterile website,” he says. “The policies for regulating content on a website reside with the client. If [companies] choose to totally sterilise the input on their online communities then I suspect that might turn their communities away.”
The alternative to customers turning away is for them to get angrier. Just ask Channel Seven. When a furious comment by a grieving mother was deleted from the network’s Facebook page, it only enraged people further, not to mention the community that had sprung up in the woman’s support.
As well as adding fuel to the fire, deleting negative comments “just because” is dangerous because it’s easy to prove that that’s been done, Boschma says. “Because it involves the written word, the evidence trail is really easy to set up,” she says of typically savvy customers who take screen shots of their comments and tweets as soon as they are posted.
So what’s a clumsy company to do with such criticism if wholesale deletion tips the “authenticity” balance too far the wrong way? Respond carefully and strategically, Sussin advises. The reviews her telecommunication clients receive “are always negative”, she says. “But what you can do is try to make it neutral.”
If responding to individual comments is too onerous – as is the case for large telcos – Sussin suggests crafting messages that “respond to the largest group of people”.
But authenticity on the social web extends further than the branded pages that businesses can control. Sussin is extremely concerned about fake reviews, followers and friends. A recent Gartner report estimated that by 2014, 10 to 15 per cent of reviews on social media would be fake. The researchers said they included friends and followers in their definition of reviewers.
When doing market research for start-up Bleep.ly, which was designed to help companies manage their social media accounts better, Henare Degan was “blown away” at the number of companies paying for fake Twitter followers.
“I can’t see how that would provide any return on investment to a brand, apart from a social signal [that a brand is popular],” he says. He likens the approach to chasing “vanity metrics”.
Degan reckons companies are pushing for a move back to the status quo where they had greater control over marketing messages. “It’s scary dealing with customers and having them speak their mind,” he says.
As for fake reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor for tourism businesses and Eatability for restaurants, they can be positive – often paid for by the company – or negative and probably posted by a slanderous competitor, Sussin says.
“Ethically, there’s a problem here but it speaks to a larger way that businesses have begun to use the medium,” she says. “They’re trying to work it to try and complement what their traditional messages have been.”
Boschma says the Gartner report might be correct but it gives no credit to human behaviour and a user’s ability to read between the lines. “People look at a range of reviews and knock out the extremes,” she says. “They knock out the extremely positive and the extremely negative and pay attention to the middle. The assumption is the middle is where the reasonable people sit.”
If a business is a victim of fake reviews, reputation management companies such as KwikChex in Britain have popped up but their approach can centre on complex and costly litigation.
Negative reviews based in truth will not be drowned out by fake positives, especially if there is an underlying, repetitive theme, such as customers complaining that a hotel is next to a noisy nightclub, Boschma says.
A better approach is to listen and respond, Sussin says, pointing to the ability of business owners to comment through Tripadvisor.
“If somebody complains that you deliver awful service,” she says, “they want you to say, ‘We’re sorry to hear you had a bad experience, we’re going to try and fix it for you next time’.”
“Show people that you’re listening to them. That’s really all they want.”