Enough of your patronising social media heroics, please

11 Nov 2010

Homo sapiens in the early part of the second decade of the third millennium have evolved razor-sharp senses to detect the difference between fake sincerity and sincere sincerity. Embark upon the latter at your peril.

Actually no, please don’t. Just don’t. Observing some businesses taking steps into online customer engagement without having worked out their strategy first is like watching your Dad dancing at a wedding disco: it can be very amusing and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The old moves that served him so well in the late Sixties and early Seventies just aren’t cutting it any more. (For the record, I am proud to say I have never seen my father dance, at a wedding disco or anywhere else, a tradition I hope to honour and pass on to my own children.)

Just as the worst sin a sexagenarian can commit on the dance floor is to try too hard, so this crime is also the kiss of death when it comes to online customer engagement.

To try to fake sincerity, or to make the engagement something it is not, is simply to waste everyone’s time. Any form of melodrama or attempted customer service heroics will be sniffed at a hundred paces and you will be hung out to dry. This is the best news imaginable for people who are passionate about their businesses, interested in their customers and always wanting to improve. The suite of tools available for you to amplify the voice of your happiest customers and have positive conversations online has never been more comprehensive. For those of you going through the motions, the simple truth is that the days of covering over the cracks of a second-rate business with first-rate marketing are over forever.

Look at Honda and Starbucks

Honda recently took a hammering online when it launched a new car into the American market. Prominent bloggers, major car websites and others rated the car very poorly. Honda’s response? To get employees, friends, family and PR agencies to blog and comment positively about the car. This turned negative publicity amongst a small group of influential car enthusiasts into mainstream news throughout the general marketplace. The result? A textbook PR disaster.

Similarly, Starbucks, which in general terms has been an excellent pioneer of all things online, came in for criticism recently when Starbucks’ UK managing director replied to a Twitter criticism from political satirist Armando Lannucci – “Still surprised that, despite their market dominance, Starbucks haven’t eliminated the slight smell of lavatory you get as you enter” – within five minutes.

Observers suggested that Lannucci received such a prompt reply because he had 80,000 followers and Starbucks wanted to look responsive.

In this case, it seems like the channel trumped the conversation. Rather than asking “what are the specifics of this conversation?”Starbucks’ social media engagement policy seemed to suggest if a tweet went to more than a certain number of followers, it needed to be taken very seriously.

The fact that the comment was tongue-in cheek and could barely be viewed as a critique of the experience was ignored.

Whilst Lannucci’s followers were enjoying his ongoing irreverence about pretty much everything, Starbucks was straining at the leash to get the oversized gift cheque into the church offering plate, keen that all around would recognise what wonderful people they were.

‘Sincerity done right’

The best example of sincerity done right involves a personal confessional. A few years ago, I was involved in the project team tasked with putting together an e-commerce website for The Bureau, a clothing store in Belfast. Knowing the quality and price of its clothes, and all too aware of the competition online, I was concerned that the e-commerce website wouldn’t attract enough sales to make the initiative profitable.

Within six months, I am pleased to say, I was proved entirely incorrect. I had underestimated the power of the online crowd to amplify a voice that resonates with them. One of the things you will quickly realise if you spend any time at all with the team in The Bureau is that their passion is clothes. Their clothes are expensive but it would be wrong to say their interest is money, their obsession is fashion. Three years before they launched their online store they were involved in blogging; both writing a blog and commenting on other blogs. By the time their e-commerce shop launched, they had an audience of interested, engaged potential customers who were ready to buy into the values and interests of the shop.

Please, no more public taking a bullet for the team. It doesn’t work and we all see through it. If you’re going to venture into online engagement, work out what it is you care passionately about and be passionate about it publicly. If there’s nothing that you feel particularly strongly about then stick with other forms of marketing.

Gareth Dunlop is managing director of leading digital consultancy, Ion. Its customers are in 15 countries and include The Commonwealth Secretariat, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oklahoma Publishing and The Patent Office.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

Online crimes of passion

New Media Opinion: Online reputation optimisation

Offline marketing isn’t dead …

The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

Urgent need for new online metrics   

Electricity and the gold rush

The real reason the recession is good for marketing

The class of 2009 wants your job!

Firms need to be customer zealots, not technology zealots

Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

Online advertising overtakes TV advertising

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.