Social media is fast becoming an integral part of marketing campaigns. The more the internet pushes the boundaries of communication and how fast it can deliver multimedia such as videos and photos, the more it becomes ingrained into the very essence of everyone's day to day activities. People communicate in much broader ways now than they every have.
We used to have the pony express, then it was the telegraph, then the phone brought us even closer even though were hundreds of miles apart. When the computer started to be a way to communicate (think ARPANET here), that's when things really started to expand - emails, message boards, then instant messenger soon came along. Forums & message boards never went away, they just began to morph into communities, soon enough you had intricate profiles, as well as blogs and now even multimedia can be added in.
So where am I going with this?
I was listening to a Brad Paisley song the other day called "Online". In this song, Brad sings about this guy who's really got no life, but pretends to be someone else online, through his Myspace page. The song always makes me laugh, as I have run into situations like this for the past 15+ years I've been online. Sometimes the internet as a communication medium can hide things rather easily, but when the truth comes out, it's not always the best thing to have happen.
I always come back to how this can affect marketers, brands and companies who are not honest about their efforts or ethical about the online marketing strategies online or how they are holding conversations online with customers. Basically they are pretending to be some thing they aren't. Three examples of this that immediately spring to mind are: Walmart's Flogging - with RV'ing Across America, and the funding of their "front group" Working Families for Walmart, and of course Sony's Flog.
There's a lot of other instances of this happening. Writing fake reviews, posing as someone else in a forum, trying to get editors on Wikipedia to put up fake articles, or even putting up fake videos have all been tried. I've even been told by some conference goers that industry related conferences have sessions on how to "write a fake review" about your business. I've not just heard this from one particular industry but from several. When I hear about this, it just reinforces my belief that being upfront and honest about who you are goes a long way.
Visitors need it, customers, demand it. They want to know or at least feel that what you are telling them is the truth and not some ruse to get them into the door to buy their products. If you break the customer's trust, its very difficult to mend that rift. A few have done this, but more have disappeared into obscurity. The smaller the company, the more damaging taking the "lets build a fake review" strategy can be.
Walmart had a firestorm with its blogging fiasco, but in the end it wasn't Walmart who suffered, it was Edleman. For Sony, it was the same - they took a hit, but in the end the company who handled the creation and promotion of this fake blog that was the one who took the hit. It's rare a behemoth company will fall totally on a mis-step or two, especially at a time when the internet is just coming into its own, advertising wise.
However, as the years progress and more and more people are on the internet and actually paying attention to blogs and maybe even mediums like twitter, it's important for companies to learn from the missteps of Walmart & Sony. Just because a PR company has all these awards, doesn't mean they have the skills and experience to translate their PR strategies offline to the online environment. Look at what the "big" PR firms did for Walmart & Sony, and that should tell you awards and profiles don't mean a thing when it comes to marketing online or handling buzz on the internet.
There are more small to mid-size businesses out there in the world than "Walmart" sized companies. Many can be lured in by the portfolio of "we have Big Brand A as a client", or "we won this award", type of pitches. Don't fall for it, especially when they start advising you to hide your identity, fake a review, start a blog but not identify who you are.
Stop and think before your enter into a strategy that might seem a bit aggressive. The Walmart's and the Sony's of the world have the resources to withstand a firestorm that will ensue, but do you? Could you recoup all of that trust and loyalty you've gained over the years, if it were to be found out you created a fake blog, or a fake profile on Facebook, all to deceive your audience? Do you have the resources to rebuild your reputation again after a firestorm like that?
For your enjoyment, here's the "Online" video and links to the making of the video "Online" by Brad Paisely, that I referenced earlier on. Come on, how can you resist Jason Alexander, Maureen "Marsha Brady" McCormick, William Shatner & Estelle Harris? :)