Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Brands and Social Media & Legal Departments

I talk to a lot of people every day. I mean a lot from a variety of fields and areas. What I'm seeing a very interesting shift. Not only is there a desire from individuals within large corporations, brands and businesses to use social media in some way shape or form, but increasingly there's an interest in going beyond just Social Business Networking.

Business areas like health care need to be especially sensitive, I've heard similar tales from others businesses. And yet there seem to be some examples of big brands that get out there and participate in social networks despite the risks. Dell for one, has been doing it for years, through blogs, creation of communities and by jumping into a number of networks. Zappos has taken to extending its customer experience across social channels such as Twitter. Whole Foods has a useful presence on Facebook, where one of its representatives is active in the discussion boards, not only alerting members to promotions but also encouraging them to share recipes. Is the legal department asleep at the wheel of these companies?

There is a growing number of case studies of brands that go beyond putting just their ads on social networks. It's becoming clear that brands that figure out how to engage customers meaningfully through the use of social media can reap big time rewards, but there is some risk. To help understand that risk you need to truly understand how different social media is compared to say, interactive marketing.

For starters, it's social, which means its people-to-people, not technology-to-people. Secondly, you can't walk away that easily from social initiatives the way you can walk away from that microsite and banner campaign you just launched. And lastly you have to understand that social media as the killer feature that is designed to make your legal department cringe and stand on its ear. It's called feedback. Even putting a simple video on YouTube means that you are opening yourself up to the opinions of anyone and everyone who has something to say. So what's a business, brand or large organization to do?

Start Small
As marketers, we're trained to make a big splash. Participation in social networks often requires the opposite. Start small and test things out. Take calculated risks and plan for multiple scenarios. If your ultimate desire is to be active across multiple networks, start with one and figure out the nuances there. In other words, do what you can to manage the risk.

Find An Internal Sponsor
Whether you've coordinated with legal or plan to after the fact, it's important to find someone high up in the organization that's willing to support and go to bat for your initiative. Do not to do something in a total vacuum.

Develop Participation Guidelines
The first question any organization has to ask itself is whether it's going to participate in the conversations. If you answer no, then you are most likely interested in simply getting your content out there. If it's yes, then hold on to your hats because you'll get positive, negative and neutral feedback on anything you put out there. Prior to launching your initiative, have these guidelines in place and be ready to change them on a dime because that's how quickly a plan can turn into an act of improvisation.

Don't Give Up
The explosion of participation in all forms of social media is actually not a trend or a fad; it's a significant shift in how we human beings interact on and with the web. Should I say it again? This is not a trend or a fad, but a significant shift! If legal seems a bit paranoid, don’t blame them and don't give up since it's worth finding out about one way or another. And the only way you'll know for sure is if you try.

It's important to remember that successful case studies of interaction are slowly emerging. These often look less like advertising and more like a mish-mash of customer service, communications, content delivery, etc. The legal department in your organization is there to help protect your company from liability, while you are there to serve your customers. While there's no right answer here, it's important to remember that you're both working to protect your company. And if meaningful participation in social networks provides a way to better serve customers, isn’t its worth trying against a balance of possible litigation.

Larson note: There is an up side and a down side to everything in this age of the lawyer so also the loss of freedom of expression. This is the sad part about working in the world of Social Media. What can you say and what can’t you say? There is a way to work this channel, and as we work and develop the tools and knowledge of exactly what we have in our hands we will begin to see the true power of SM

Howard Larson
Larson & Associates
Telesales & Target Marketing Professionals for new account acquisition
Making good businesses great and great businesses even better

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