Social networking: the good, the bad and the presumptuous

There's a full-fledged backlash against social media marketing emerging, with commentary from places you'd expect and from some you might not.


This is tough on those with a solid foundation in market messaging; those doing good things with modern technologies around the age old concepts of market “conversations” or word of mouth.

Ten years ago the book, The ClueTrain Manifesto put forward ninety- five theses, essentially expanding on the following:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter — and getting smarter faster than most companies.
The ClueTrain Manifesto was written in the era of email and mailing lists, news groups, chat/instant messaging and, of course, Web pages; it was conceived during the height of the dot-com-boom.

Ten years later, Burger King launched a clever, though cynical, application on Facebook called “Whopper Sacrifice.”

As Word of Mouth Marketing associ-ation member and Brand Communications Agency President Michael Diccicco described, “It promised a free Whopper hamburger to anyone in the U.S. on Facebook who would ‘sacrifice’ (ditch, dump, de-friend) 10 Facebook friends.”

All you had to do, via Facebook, was tell Burger King which ten friends you were dumping, and you received a coupon for a free Whopper. Your ten former friends then received notices that they were dumped (normal Facebook “de-friending” which occurs without notification to the dumpee).

The idea caused a minor uproar, with some taking offense to the less than amicable Burger King concept. Apparently, unloading 10 friends (whom you could quickly “re-friend” the next day) for a free burger is not just anti-social, it’s un-American and perhaps, immoral, as well.

There you have the perfect ark, from visionary manifesto to ironic in-the-moment commercial lampooning of social media with all its sociological pretensions.

Fools rush in
There’s a parallel here with the desktop publishing revolution which empowered amateurs with professional design tools and spawned some of the worst typographic design disasters of the last century.

As described by Wikipedia:

Desktop publishing began in 1985 with the introduction of MacPublisher, the first WYSIWYG layout program which ran on the original 128K Macintosh computer. Desktop typesetting, with only limited page makeup facilities, had arrived in 1978-9 with the introduction of TeX, and was extended in the early 1980s by LaTeX. The DTP market exploded in 1985 with the introduction in January of the Apple LaserWriter printer, and later in July with the introduction of PageMaker software from Aldus which rapidly became the DTP industry standard software.

The ability to create WYSIWYG page layouts on screen and then print pages at crisp 300 dpi resolution was revolutionary for both the typesetting industry and the personal computer industry. Newspapers and other print publications made the move to DTP-based programs from older layout systems like Atex and other such programs in the early 1980s.

What desktop publishing enabled was the decimation of the typesetting business and huge price pressure on the design profession. For those not able to differentiate between good design and multi-typeface monstrosities, these were good times. Client and practitioner alike, and of course plenty of talented graphic designers, were able to adapt to the, then, relatively crude new tools.

Over time, it became possible to apply centuries of design excellence and best practice, thanks to increasingly sophisticated electronic tools, but a toolkit doesn’t make a craftsman. Just purchasing a set of tools doesn’t imbue you with design skills any more than buying wrenches enables you to fix an engine.

Back to social media: The evangelizing book, Groundswell’s Co-author Josh Bernoff says, “Let’s talk about tampons,” specifically citing the success of a Web site called that P&G started back in 2000. It was created to communicate with pubescent girls about the value of P&G feminine hygiene products.

From Advertising Age, July 2000:

P&G last week launched, a site that mixes online sampling and product pitches for its Always and Tampax brands with interactive features such as health advice, whimsical dancing tampons and a Ms. Period Face feature that lets girls create images of how they feel during menstruation.

Bernoff’s publisher, Forrester, also published a report by Lisa Bradner on how this approach “built lasting brand loyalty,” presumably over the whole nine years the site has existed.

Burger King and its agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, knew what they were doing from a marketing strategy perspective with their whopper sacrifice campaign, just as Procter & Gamble’s marketing experts were ahead of the game with their tampon-sponsored, online girls magazine.

When television was new, programming was announced, often by a celebrity, as being “brought to you by” a sponsor. This approach lasted until the mid seventies when branding became more sophisticated.

If social media really is new, that is, a new way of selling people stuff by joining conversations about shared consumer knowledge, the sheer number of amateur practitioners is diluting and discrediting its impact.

This isn’t good for anyone, whether P&G marketers, the Burger King creatives or any other above the line branding or below the line promotions people. It’s particularly bad for internal collaboration efforts because the sheer noise around these social media marketing efforts slops over and can negatively color perceptions of what internal collaboration networks are.

The awkward “brought to you by” tone of past generations on TV is increasingly mirrored by “trying-too-hard” social media mavens butting into conversations within social media technologies. I’m not even going to address the nonsense being peddled under the rubric “branding.”

I wonder how hokey some of this stuff will look a few years from now. To many, it’s annoying now.

Author: Oliver Marks, ZDNet