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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Why Social Media Requires Sophisticated Branding

Be careful who you give your social media to.

This week, American Apparel apologized for an "international" employee who put a photo of the Challenger disaster on its Tumblr page July 3 and tagged it "smoke" and "clouds." The truth is, I don't get it at all. What was the point - July 4? What agenda did that advance? How was that supposed to sell clothes, especially after the company is reeling financially and embroiled in scandal due to ex-CEO Dov Charney?

A couple of months ago, in March, Saturday Night Live aired "Healthcare.gov Meeting Cold Open," spoofing the President's appearance on the very unfiltered web show "Between Two Ferns." The skit emphasized the President's likely embarrassment at having to do such "fluffy stuff, "along with his keen understanding that you must go where they are to make your case.

I can understand why the President would be nervous. Social media requires not only judgment but careful branding expertise.

And you can make mistakes without even trying. This week Esquire published "This Is Your Government On Instagram," which purported to show how feds of the digital engagement variety (one of which I am - full disclaimer, I'm not speaking for my agency here) waste taxpayer dollars on free tools for absolutely no decent reason.

Sure, they were trying to balloon controversy, for example saying that the White House spent "$54.3 million in communications equipment procurement (with no specific line items for social media) in 2014."  If you can't separate out how much the social media cost, why are you presenting the total figure anyway?

But communicators still have to be ready for attacks about what they are doing, on any front, whether it comes from within social media or without.

Joan Rivers has that senior judgment - she is an entertainer, a self-brander, and she has flair. Her "signature" is to make comedic outrageous statements.

She also understands that media, including social media, is fundamentally about going on the offensive to make a case in simple terms.

After People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protested her wearing fur at a book signing event on July 1, Joan told them off and then did the same to CNN in an interview to promote the same book.

Asked about the PETA incident, Joan got the sense that the interview was turning "negative," told off the host and simply walked outcursing for good measure with the microphone still on.

Of course, most of us don't curse in order to do a good job defending our respective cases. (For some of us it's a conduct violation - seriously.)

Yet to do social media well, you have to understand that it's an aggressive thing, a branding thing, and it's much more than simply issuing a tweet. 

With social media, all of it goes together - the technical skill, the cross-fertilization between tools, the extension from traditional media and print, and most importantly the insight that a branding expert has: Your efforts only have to connect with your audience.

Remember, you aren't going to please all of them - not at all. So you decide who it is you're trying to reach, what's the best way to reach them, and how you're going to do that using social media tools.

And then you get ready for criticism, and have statements gathered to take the offensive just in case.

One culminating example.

The news came out in late June that Facebook did a secret experiment on its own users - messed with people's news feeds for a week in 2012. Some got more-than-average happy stuff; other people got predominantly negative items. Indeed, people were influenced by and tended to post either more positively or more negatively after that.

Personally I do not care. But others were upset about it. They took it as proof that Facebook can't be trusted with privacy. (The Atlantic has great coverage.)

Over the years, Facebook has been no stranger to controversy and much of it has been centered on its seeming disregard for privacy and use of customer data.

But they've also been very consistent over the years. And do you know what? If you're very into privacy, you aren't using Facebook. 

Michael Zimmer published "Mark Zuckerberg's Theory of Privacy" in the Washington Post, based on founder Zuckerberg's public statements. It consists of three "core principles":

1 -- "Information wants to be shared" - sharing information will make the world a better place.

2 -- "Privacy must to be overcome" - people must be convinced to shed their excessive fears about privacy.

3 -- "Control is the new privacy" - the idea is to be a part of the conversation but on the terms that you dictate.

I would argue that most Facebook users are not put off over their one-week study, which made absolutely no difference in anybody's life, because we aren't there for the privacy. We're there for the community, and to unravel ourselves to an extent, explore our identities publicly and make ourselves known.

Therefore, their so-called "blunder" was just fine.

In the end, social media all comes back to sophisticated branding.

* All opinions my own.