Friday, June 12, 2009

When Businesses and Personalities Collide

It’s a no brainer: as companies explore word of mouth marketing and introduce brands to the social web, social media savvy employees will be your strongest advocates, acting as the “special forces” troops in starting the groundswell. According to a study conducted by Edelman, 40% consider consider conversations with company employees as a creditable source of information (where as only 13% consider corporate advertising creditable). If your social media super stars are strong influencers in online communities targeting your customer base, it would make sense to empower them, right? After all, in a perfect world, each social media savvy employee can engage in positive conversations about your company's products and services, introducing exponential influences for brand building and customer loyalty efforts.

However, we do not live in a perfect world, and when old school “control” oriented management structures collide with the democratized social web, things can often get very complicated. When the topic of social media initiative comes up with friends and colleagues, it’s not uncommon to hear horror stories of “when social media efforts go bad”.

When social media savvy employees begin to attract large followings on social media platforms and mix personal messages with company related messages, should management and PR be worried? Enlightened companies should already have updated social media policies in place to prevent obvious problems such as disclosing confidential information and financial outlooks. However, things are much more complex when it comes to things NOT included in the guidelines. Should managers take it upon them selves to impose limitation on language, profile photos and use of social media platform during work hours? In my conversation with colleagues and associates, I've heard of horror stories from managers spying on employee's Facebook accounts (measuring "productivity") to unofficial, none HR sanctioned pressure to censor employees profile photos (we are not talking about offensive photos here. These are studio shots which are considered "too glamorous" for conservative business cultures).

There are many different ways to look at the mix of personal vs professional personas. As we venture into this brave new world of intermixing personal brand and business agenda, let's not forget a few points which are often overlooked:

  • As we encourage employees to participate in the social web, we need to keep in mind that social media super stars attract followers because of their unique personalities. People connect with people, not banner ads. When you strip the personalities away from your employees, you will end up with spambot like social media accounts. No body wants to "friend" a contact that repeats the press release in their status update verbatim and send out marketing spam day after day.
  • When employees feel like they have to hide their personal life and create a 2nd "company approved" accounts to please management, you have failed in the groundswell effort from within. Chances are, the only people connecting to these shill accounts are managers and other employees, and the content from these accounts are probably as transparent and genuine as traditional marketing messages. Your customers will quickly unsubscribe when they do not find value added information. Once again, people want to connect with real people, not another press release feed. Few customers are interested in feeds with only cheerleading shouts and updates on how hard your employees work.
  • I am not a fan of "implied" anything. Employees with strong social media followings should not imply that they are company spokespersons, nor should there be implied expectation from management to make them into "rogue mouth pieces". You can be a strong fan of your company's product and services, but it's always a good idea to remind your audience that your opinions are your own, and you do not speak for the company.
  • Finally, the golden rule of all online communications: If you don't want it to be printed on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, don't write it. You can't "whisper" in the online world, and everything you write will become an extension of your personal brand. Think before you comment.

What are some of the issues you are seeing in with the integration of personal and professional social media communication? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

*Photo Credit: Flickr user "Kathryn"

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