Is social media risky?
Business in general is fraught with risk. The next client or contract or customer isn't assured. Our advertising campaign could offend someone, our direct mail campaign could be beautifully designed and tested but still fail to achieve the results we want.
Accounting errors happen, and even worse, fraud. Customer service reps have a bad day. IT departments have meltdowns and failures. Products fail to meet expectations, budgets get missed. Employees misbehave, embezzle, share trade secrets. And it all happens on channels outside of social media.
As a very public, lasting, and dynamic communication platform, social media has it's share of potential challenges. And for as powerfully as I believe in its potential to elevate brands, it would be irresponsible to assume that venturing into social media territory doesn't carry some level of risk. Here are a few of the risks associated with social media that we've been talking about:
A customer could leave a negative comment on your blog, or on a social network about your brand.
Criticism happens all the time, and companies need to respond appropriately and thoughtfully. Crisis communication strategy exists purely for this reason. I don't think that social media necessarily increases the chances that something negative will be said about you, but it certainly can amplify the message. Companies embarking on social media adventures need to understand how to monitor their brand online - especially on the company-owned channels - and learn how to engage and respond in a way that bolsters the brand.
An employee could say something on behalf of the company that's not authorized, is potentially offensive, or share something confidential.
Kellye Crane today pointed me to a post that Leigh Durst put on her blog about Whole Foods' potential misstep on Twitter. Apparently, their Twitter representative(s) reposted a tweet with questionable language, and some fallout ensued. Can one misstep like this have more staying power than five smart moves? Social media folks always say that Google never forgets, and more and more we find proof that it doesn't.
Beth Harte penned a great post about her recent experiences on Twitter; the height of the political season has folks tossing barbs left and right, and there is certainly potential for brand damage - both personal and corporate.
We've spent years now using the phone and email to communicate, and the potential exists to really screw up there, too. So what makes social media different? Is it the ubiquitous, open and organic nature of conversation on the web? Does the anoynmity of a computer screen encourage poorer judgment?
Participating in social networks or blogging requires dedicated resources or productivity, and can be difficult to sustain at an active level.
For a moment, I'm going to put aside the argument of whether engaging in social media is a waste of time in the first place, and assume that it's not. But engaging in social media the "right" way requires a commitment, and can be hard work. Understaffing, underestimating, and doing it poorly can be worse than doing nothing at all. A blog with one post that hasn't been updated in months can send a lack of commitment message that a mere absence of blogging might not.
As Mack Collier deftly points out, putting the wrong resources to work can misfire, too. Just because only one employee is familiar with blogging doesn't mean that they're the right choice to blog on behalf of a company. Choosing social media stewards for your company needs to be as well thought out as appointing any major project managers. (One could even argue more so, considering the very public nature of this kind of role.)
The corporate message can't be as easily controlled or managed.
Yes, it's true that you as a company don't necessarily control all your messaging anymore, and your customers are having a greater and more lasting impact on your brand.
But Jeff Summers and Jane Chin are both smart to point out that some industries carry more risk and liability than others for that very messaging. Financial institutions or health care organiations very likely have regulations they must adhere to, and legal obligations that control what kind of information they can disclose and how. For companies in these spaces, social media is a very serious business and legal consideration that has to be approached carefully (if its appropriate at all).
It's more than clear that a sound social media strategy involves analysis of potential issues that can arise as well as the potential benefits. And like any other smart business move, stepping into social media should be treated with respectful planning and communication. Just because it's a shiny "new" toy doesn't mean that it ought to be treated lightly.
Are these risks different than those for other areas of business? Are the standards for social media the same or different, and why? Is there equal risk in doing nothing at all and missing the boat on social media altogether?
Let's continue the conversation in the comments. This is an important subject!
Thanks also to Sonny Gill, Tara Whittle, Tim "Masiguy" Jackson, Rhonda LaShae, and Barbara Baker for weighing in on the conversation, and their great contributions as always (which you can read here on Plurk).
Image by hellolapomme
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