In this final blog on Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0, we look at some of the dangers and realities of using social networking tools (in the broadest sense) as part of a marketing communications strategy.

I started this series by saying that I had been sent a link to a website entitled How to use Twitter for marketing and PR, a hot topic if ever there was one that, from its title, sounded like an interesting read. Frankly, it was both more prescient and a great deal more full of insight than one can imagine – it simply said ‘Don’t’. But is this true? And that is a very good question.

At one level, the users of social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn proclaim that these tools are for ‘social’ networking and not marketing but this begs the question: isn’t networking also a form of marketing? According to many practitioners the most effective marketing is word-of-mouth and with the rise of the interconnected, fully networked life, word-of-mouth is being replaced by word-of-mouse. Social networks are a place where people talk about what interests them, things they have found to be good and those they have found to be not so good and, as with the vocal word-of-mouth, this ‘conversation’ has ‘influence’ on those who ‘hear’ it (or read it). Marketing professionals have long been aware that a consumer’s purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by the information that the consumer receives from those whose opinions they value (and, I might add, they are uninfluenced by those whose opinions are not considered valid). Opinion leaders and opinion formers are, therefore, critical to the purchasing decision.

To have influence as an opinion leader or opinion former is something that many people set out to achieve by forcing their opinions on anyone and everyone who can be persuaded to listen (or read). Critics abound and to find two who agree on any subject is often a real challenge and so the consumer is left to make their own decisions as to who to listen to. But for a critic, commentator, or anyone else to be seen as an opinion leader or opinion former it is necessary for them to be seen as having ‘authority’ on the subject because everyone seems to have an opinion on everything but whether that opinion is of value is dependent on the person expressing the opinion having valid experience in the field, having access to the relevant information and having the knowledge necessary to interpret that information (and even then it remains just an opinion).

Assuming the consumer can find an opinion leader or opinion former whose opinions they trust as being valid, then the opinions expressed (by whatever means) will have influence. The danger with social networking applications is that they allow even the extremely uninformed and the painfully ignorant to express their opinion on everything and to do so frequently, vehemently, and widely. Simply by the frequency of posts these people can become influencers (the assumption being that ‘if they have so much to say, they must know what they are talking about’) despite their often evident biases, prejudices, and ignorance. Unfortunately, if such people are challenged, they frequently become abusive, adopt high-and-mighty tones and, occasionally, start ‘flame-wars’ in which they bombard the participants in the conversation with posts – and this has become one of the major ‘downsides’ of the social networking and Enterprise 2.0 scene.

And this is not confined to just social networking sites, it also all too frequently happens on websites that encourage users to post their comments in the form of forums, blogs and wikis. For example, a recent check on a well-regarded book review website revealed that two commentators operating under the names of ‘Blob’ and ‘Squid’ had taken it upon themselves to be unpleasantly negative about a book and to post comments (never a review) that were totally at odds with all other reviews of that book. This might have been a valid contribution to the discussion about the book had the writers had the courtesy and self-confidence to use their real names – when book buyers were asked for their opinion about these two commentators, they were dismissive and observed that Blob and Squid were clearly not to be taken seriously because they lacked authority – demonstrated by their use of avatars (assumed names/characters for use in cyber space) – and where thus dismissed as unreliable.

This points up two important points: if you wish to influence the ‘conversation’ you need to be a trusted contributor and that takes time to achieve, and secondly, it is essential that those hoping to use Enterprise 2.0 for marketing communications of any sort need to monitor the cyber world on a consistent, frequent, periodic, and committed manner – it is vital to know what is being said about your product or service at all times so that you can reinforce and positively influence the ‘conversation’ and counteract negative or misinformed comment.

If you would like to engage in a discussion with Alasdair White on this subject, then please feel free to email him.

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