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Social Media. Do you know who’s listening?

Last night, thanks to the wonders of sky+ (personal video recorder) I was able to catch up on Evan Davies’ “Business Nightmares: Marketing Mess Ups.” The show told the tales of a few infamous marketing mistakes made by some of our biggest brands. Of course, we all make mistakes and many of our business leaders made more than a few before they made it to the top.

Evan recounted the stories of Sunny Delight’s failure to promote itself as a healthy drink (partly by turning some of its consumers orange!), the sad collapse of Yardley when it tried to rebrand and the fall of Ratners Jewellers, following Gerald Ratner’s comments about the quality of their products.

What I learned from the programme was how the Ratners story came to light. In short, Gerald, while at the top of his game, gave a keynote speech to the Institute of  Directors. In an attempt to inject some humour into his speech, delivered his famous line about one of their products being, “total crap”. While his intended audience of company directors laughed away, he was blissfully unaware of a Sun journalist also present in the audience, just waiting for a front-page story. Thanks to Gerald’s words and the journalist’s timing the story hit the tabloid papers the next day – at which point, Gerald’s audience grew – and his business began to fail.

Where this tale struck me was in the light of today’s social media, where making a comment is like wearing your heart on your sleeve. When you’ve only got 140 characters or so to make a statement – will everyone take it the way you intended? What started out as light-hearted humour for Gerald resulted in his business empire collapsing, his resignation and (most sadly) a breakdown from which it took him several years to recover.

Whatever the platform, be it  Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, a forum or other it’s so easy to make a statement in cyberspace. But who’s listening? Or watching? Is your Twitter feed or Facebook profile set to the right security settings? Could your comments be taken out of context? As an individual it’s one thing, as a brand it’s another. Upsetting your customers or donors is a hard place to recover from (if at all). Even a simple typo can change the meaning of a sentence.

And it doesn’t end there – who’s listening to your listeners? Who’s following your followers? This week, Twitter has come under fire because allegations made about a well-known footballer (who I don’t need to name, as an MP’s done it for me!) have been spread around its conversation streams. In contravention of a court injunction, over 75,000 Twitterers learned the name of the Premiership star, reinforcing the power of the peer-to-peer communications channel.

Twitter may be applauded for defending the integrity of its platform by handing over details of users who spread the allegations, but the damage is already done. Once the information’s out there, it’s Out There! As with the case of poor Gerald, it’s not necessarily the truth of the information, it’s the perception of the truth in the information.

So whilst social media is the current ‘new thing’, buzz of marketers and the world alike; a new way of reaching people that allows for personality, individuality, relevancy, interactivity and (some) measurability (all of which, a marketer’s dream), just be mindful of what you say and how you say it – after all, you don’t always know who’s listening.

So, as you engage with your social media communities, here are a few top tips:

  1. Remember that the cyberspace of social media is just like traditional media – so the basic rules still apply.
  2. Remember your audience and what they really want to hear.
  3. Once posted it may not be recoverable. Yes, you can delete Tweets, but if they’re linked to another platform, they may not be removed easily .
  4. Check your facts before you post.
  5. Proof read before you post.

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