We social media nerds are fond of talking about not "controlling" the message. And companies are freaking out about the idea of "losing control" of their brands and their stuff because the rolling tide that is the social media whateveritis is going to come and take that away from them somehow.
My friend and trusted colleague, Olivier Blanchard, spoke to this sassily, but correctly this week:
Will customers suddenly crash your strategy meetings via Seesmic? Will their Facebook updates derail your media buying? Will they somehow use Twitter to intercept and rewrite your press releases? Will they hack Seesmic to replace your next ad campaigns with their own? Will they use MySpace to brainwash your empoyees into acting like jerks?
There are a few different things we need to talk about in context of the idea of control.
1. How You Present Yourself
You've always held the keys to how you put your business out into the world, or how you educate your employees about your purpose and values. Everything from your logo to your collateral to how your customer service department behaves is under the umbrella of your presentation as a company. You get to decide how you do this part. You make the rules about what you put out there in terms of sanctioned image, content, or message. That's always been true, and that hasn't changed. You have every bit the control over the presentation of your company as you always have.
2. How You Are Perceived and How People React
This is the bit where we're talking about businesses never really having control. You can't dictate how people think, period. You couldn't do it before the world of social technologies, and you can't do it now. You can present yourself and hope to influence that perception, but you cannot control it.
The difference is that today, with the prevalence and ubiquity of the internet, there are lots of places for people to share those perceptions with their friends and the world at large (including your customers, prospects, employees, and people not connected to you at all). So you haven't lost any control. People are still reacting to your business the way they always have. Now, they've got more tools with which to share those viewpoints, and they're more visible and sharable.
Worried that the danger is in your own house? That employees are going to misrepresent you if you give them tools to do so? Hint: they already have them. They're called the phone on their desk, and the email account with your domain on it, and their own voice and personal lives. You trust them as representatives of your business in every other communication channel. If you don't trust them here, you have a hiring problem or an education problem, but not a control problem. The tools are not the issue.
3. What You Do With What You Learn
Ultimately, you decide how you're going to absorb and assimilate #2 into #1. As a business, if you're listening and paying attention to how people are articulating those perceptions, you still have the choice as to what you're going to do with that information. You can change everything. You can change nothing at all.
The reason social media advocates get up in your grill is because they're afraid that #2 is happening, but that it's not informing #1, and that the two may even be working at cross purposes. They (we) also believe that there's probably some insights that your customers and community can give to you that might actually help make your business better, whether it's reinforcement of what you're doing well, criticism intended to point out potential weaknesses, or a way of looking at your business or describing your value in a way you may never have thought of.
The truth is that, with the rare trollish exception, people aren't expressing their opinions about your company because they don't care. They're not trying to wrest your brand from you and create some brand alter-ego doppleganger thing, and they're not using YouTube or Facebook or their blog to try and overthrow you as the masters of your brand domain. In fact, most people don't want that kind of responsibility.
They're trying to tell you what matters to them and what would make your business more useful and helpful to them (read: what makes them spend money on you), in whatever medium they think you'll notice. They're not trying to control your brand. They're trying to get your attention.
You have all the control you want over #3. Using social media strategies and tools can help you with #2, if you're engaging with the intent to hear and the intent to consider what those folks are telling you. That builds trust. It lets people know you're paying attention and that you value their voice. It's not a promise of action, but it's a demonstration of awareness.
But control? You have as much as you always did. Now, you've got more accountability and expectations surrounding your business because of social media. People are watching to see how you respond to both. Ultimately, what you do with any of it is completely up to you.
See the difference? What do you think?
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