Social Media and the Hierarchy of Trust


This morning I walked through my typical online regiment before starting my day. Looked at Outlook, browsed my Facebook updates, looked at Twitter and scanned Reddit. It was a post on Reddit however that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Another brand lay victim to the Internet.

No, I’m not talking about that company who is welcoming Pitbull to Kodiak, Alaska with open arms (and a really warm jacket). There was another, who I’ll spare further embarrassment by naming them. All you need to know is they had a naming contest for a product and it went awry when they didn’t monitor the responses fast enough. Based on the names submitted without filters, by this morning their site had offended:

  • Senior Citizens
  • An ethnicity
  • America

Easily containable had someone been monitoring but they weren’t,  and before you could say “meme”, it was on the front page of a site that reaches 2 million unique visitors per month.Laugh if you like, but before you decry that you’ll never fall into the same traps as previous brands, let’s come to a mutual understanding: you will. Unequivocally without question, if you’re working for a Fortune 500 with multiple facets of your marketing/communications organization, there is little doubt that at some point someone will commission a small program unbeknownst to you that will cause a similar kerfuffle. The challenge is, can you mitigate it. Here’s how:

1. Understand Your Hierarchy of Trust

Yes I just dropped your new favorite soon to be social media cliche but hear me out. When I worked for RAPP under a joint venture called Measure2x (measure twice, get it?), we had an opportunity to partner with our big sister company to develop a strategy on how Pharma could leverage social media. In my role I was fortunate to work with complete braniacs when it came to strategy and analysis. One such colleague, Mark Kaplan, had developed a really simple graphic that conveyed what we were pitching. Based on a pyramid, we showed that the lower on the base you were, the less trust you had of your community. Conversely, the higher up you were, the more trust you had.

Examples? Well on the low end, think of an engagement that required your community to work with existing content – maybe it’s a photo voting contest or a like gating engagement on Facebook; ultimately the purpose of base pyramid tactics is to mitigate as much risk as possible while still offering a level of engagement.

In the center of the pyramid you have moderate inputs. Tactics such as submitting ideas into a queue where you still control publishing. The words are authentically part of your community yet you’ve established rules for assuring those voices adhere to whatever requirements were necessary for visibility.

At the top of the pyramid I look at campaigns that bring unfiltered engagement to the table. You as a brand create the destination and your community provides the content.  Or, probably more appropriately, your brand creates the content and your community provides the destination.

2. Publish Your Rules of Engagement

Take lessons from your creative colleagues. How many times have you seen a Creative Director aghast when a photo of a product you sell was shot wrong. Regardless of what you think, there is a reason why that Creative is freaking out: the brand. He/She lives it, eats it, breaths it…and you’re messing with it.

Same rules apply for social programs. Publish and merchandise across your organization. Make sure your company knows where you stand on running programs that may inherently lead to situations of discomfort and then explain how you’ll mitigate them. In a bottom-pyramid scenario, you can argue that unless you have a critical mass large enough, you may need to use disruptive tactics to build awareness of your program. This is fine and dandy, but you still should think strategically on your approach. Hell, a SWOT works if you really need to think through that awesome idea. Elf Yourself? Epic. F Yourself? Possible if you’re not careful.

3. Do Not Embrace Honey Badger. See Something? Say Something

I lived in New Jersey. I took a train to Manhattan every day for more than half a decade. Everywhere you looked you’d see signs in and around Penn Station that if you noticed something suspicious, don’t keep it to yourself, tell the authorities.

Same applies for social marketing. If you see the slightest instance of mischief about your brand’s related to a campaign, don’t just sit on your hands, notify someone. Set up Google Alerts, create a twitter column dedicated to your campaign, keep staff glued to moderation. Whatever it takes, watch it like a hawk. If for whatever reason you decide to let your community engage without your involvement to an owned brand page or application, you need to be prepared to respond in the chance things go awry.

Last but not least, you never want to be in a position where, as a redditor put it today “Oh god – we invited the internet and they showed up. WTF do we do now?”

The Internet is awesome. Just have a plan before you jump into the fray.

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