There’s a fine line between influencing the message and creating propaganda. CoreBrand’s brand director explains where to draw it.
It’s a wiki world and the game has changed. Microsoft has landed in hot water for hiring a writer to “correct inaccuracies” around several open source related documents on Wikipedia. McDonald’s (among many others) has posted promotional images and messages under the guise of user-generated content. NBC developed a contest on YouTube for users to submit videos that “create interest for potential viewers to watch ‘The Office.'”
There is a fine line between influencing the message and creating propaganda. While the practice of positioning paid promotional content as news or editorial or entertainment is hardly new, wikis, blogs and video-sharing sites have made it increasingly easy for companies to post information about themselves, their markets or their competitors without identifying themselves as the source.
What is appropriate in the new age of marketing where user-generated and community-generated are commonplace? When do brands go too far and what are the possible repercussions? What is the right way for brands to behave in the Wild West of the user-generated marketplace?
Here are four essentials for smart brand behavior in a wiki world:
1. Be transparent
Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure. Faith and trust in any medium — print, television, blog, wiki — is built upon disclosure. Companies must be transparent about any role they play in delivering a message to the market, or public trust in the company — and even in the chosen medium itself — will crumble.
2. If you invite it, be prepared to publish it.
Companies that seek user-generated content to help them promote or advertise will get some undesirable input; the question becomes how much and how harsh. Subverting opinions critical of your brand will come back to haunt you someday (probably sooner than later). Plus, admitting you have a few warts may help you gain some respect.
3. Don’t be taken by surprise
There are more than enough sources out there to get a flavor of the mood and surrounding opinions with respect to your brand. Before you look to play the web community game, build an understanding of what the community thinks about you, lest you find yourself trying to subvert negative commentary (see #2 above).
4. Don’t be afraid to be a luddite
If you can’t abide by the first three above, do yourself a favor by just sitting on the sidelines. Better to be thought of as a bit behind the market than to find your brand as a target in the blogosphere.
Of course, advertisers looking to stand out will continue to push the envelope on consumer permissions. And practices initially considered crass or dishonest or inappropriate could ultimately gain mainstream consumer acceptance. Product placement is testament to this, as it continues to be met with consumer criticism or skepticism, yet has become a standard vehicle in any major media plan these days.
Wikiality, the phrase coined by Stephen Colbert to define the “truth by consensus” that emerges as Wikipedia becomes the default reference for everything, can have significant impact on how brands are represented online in vehicles written by the collective. Anyone from commercial concerns to politicians to activist groups has incentive to alter how they or their competitors/detractors are perceived. We’d like to believe that gentlemanly behavior will be the order of the day, but we are obviously too smart for that. And Microsoft’s ham-handed efforts are just another reminder.
So, is the answer not to get caught or not to play the game? Neither. New applications do not bestow license to rewrite the standards of brand integrity. Smart behavior, informed by a basic list of dos and don’ts, can serve as a roadmap even to the uncharted waters of a wiki world.