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How to Protect Brands against the "Mean World Syndrome" in Social Media
Posted on March 12th 2013
Cultivation Theory, an approach developed by George Gerbner, focuses on the long-term impact of exposure to TV content on people’s attitudes and opinions. This communication theory suggests that heavy TV viewers tend to be afraid of walking alone at night. Gerbner calls this tendency to think that the world is worse than it really is as the “mean world syndrome.” Heavy TV viewers who are exposed to all sorts of violence showing crime scenes, covering police reports, and depicting brutal images tend to believe that the images they see on TV are the reality.
How can Cultivation Theory be applied in Social Media?
Imagine a traveler going to a certain country for the first time. His or her first move is to search online as much information as possible about that country: about food, people, safety, place to stay, culture, etc. If upon Google search, the keywords returned discussions or posts with negative comments or terrible news about the country, that person might just change his or her mind.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend whose colleague from another country went to her place for a short trip. My friend was surprised because she noticed that her foreign friend kept avoiding the kids on the street. When she asked why, her friend said, “Oh, I’ve read in the Internet that the kids in this place are mostly pickpockets.” My friend just said, “Of course not!” This is a clear indication of Gerbner’s “mean world syndrome”. The only difference is that the perception was not cultivated by TV content, but by online discussions. This difference, however, is significant because the media-literate people these days tend to believe more in online buzz than they do with TV which they know has gatekeepers, unlike the social media. In this case, all the marketing efforts of a country’s tourism industry would not make any difference if negative comments about the place are all over social media.
What can Brands and Businesses learn from Cultivation Analysis?
Brands are among the favorite topics of consumers online. Netizens who need reassurance on the products that they intend to buy do check out random online reviews or discussions. Some do go to the brand’s official Facebook page to learn more about its products, and many would like to know what their friends think about the brand (word-of-mouth is still very powerful). Incidentally, netizens with negative experiences about a brand are also quick to go to social media to simply rant or complain. All of the sentiments online about brands can directly or indirectly shape the consumers’ mindset on whether the brand’s product is worth buying or not.
Because of the perception “cultivation” that happens every time a consumer is exposed to conversations and comments about brands, it is but necessary to manage online brand perception by:
1. Identifying and deconstructing negative perception about the brand. Conducting sentiment analysis will greatly help. Finding the influencers and engaging them could be inevitable. Analyzing the context of the negative perception is essential.
Negative perception could vary from one country to another. For example, for people in the US and other countries, Starbucks is already a household name, unlike in Vietnam in which the first Starbucks store has just opened last month, and many Vietnamese netizens are not positive about the entry of the brand in Vietnam, which is known to be the world’s second largest coffee producer.
2. Discovering and driving positive online brand association. Finding out to which values, ideas, personalities, or emotions the consumers tend to associate the brand is invaluable. Aside from simply listening, brands have to connect directly with netizens, interact with them, and engage them in meaningful conversations to drive positive brand association.
The great thing about social media is that brands can always take an active role in cultivating brand perception, reinforcing positive image, and deconstructing negative impressions.
Companies have to protect their prospective consumers and their current market against negative sentiments that could break their brands. The most important thing to remember is that keeping one’s eyes and ears open at all times is the key to guarding brands against the “mean world syndrome.” The netizens are out there 24/7. They’re talking about brands, and it won’t be good if the topics of discussions, the brands, that is, are the last to find out.