How Marketing will Kill Social Media

kill social media enthusiasmSocial Media Monitoring has hit the mainstream media with an article last week in the Wall Street Journal discussing PepsiCo’s development of a “Mission Control” center for Gatorade, where staff monitor online conversations relevant to Gatorade. It’s a good article for insight into how big brands are beginning to explore social media intelligence, but it also highlights some of the persistent attitudes that will cause problems as these brands negotiate social media integration—and if they continue the way they’re going, it will ultimately kill social media enthusiasm among consumers.

“Whenever someone uses Twitter to say they’re drinking a Gatorade or mentions the brand on Facebook or in other social media, it pops up on a screen in Mission Control. On Saturday, the staff jumped into a Facebook conversation to correct a poster who said Gatorade has high-fructose corn syrup.”

Okay. If there are public conversations going on about your brand, it’s important to pay attention, and even to weigh in when appropriate—maybe when misinformation is being spread about your products. But take this to its logical conclusion. Today, it’s Gatorade dropping into your conversation to correct you on what you’re saying about their product. Interesting, if a little creepy—not to mention an embarrassment for the person being corrected among his peers. If this catches on with lots of brands, what will social media look like tomorrow? Every time you mention a product or brand, your dialog is going to be annotated with comments from any brand that decides they have a reason to weigh in?

I’m glad to see team Gatorade is already struggling with their own rules of engagement:

“Aware that consumers may be wary of intrusion, Ms. Poulelis and her colleagues have to figure out when to pipe up—and when to hang back—when someone online is talking about Gatorade. “If they’re directly asking where to buy products, we’re going to weigh in,” Ms. Poulelis said. “If they want to talk about working out, we let them have that conversation.”

Wait a minute.“We let them have that conversation” ? Interesting way to frame it—notice how Gatorade sees themselves in control of the situation…at mission control. I’d humbly submit a wiser way to frame it: “We need to have the self-control to resist turning every peripherally relevant conversation into an advertisement.” Because that’s the single, key point that will determine how quickly marketers ruin social media by turning it into just another spam channel. It’s like a twisted version of Moore’s law: With each new communication technology, marketers will halve the time it takes to completely alienate consumers with spam. How long do you think it will take to create a do-not-bother list for social networks?

If you think I’m taking one little comment out of context, the article demonstrates that Gatorade’s somewhat skewed interpretation of the opportunity in social media goes right to the top. Gatorade’s CMO, enthusing about the success of their Mission Control project betrays the core delusion that will ensure that brands entirely miss the point of social media.

“”It’s like we’re a person in their social circle now,” said Chief Marketing Officer Sarah Robb O’Hagan, who is leading Gatorade’s makeover. She said Gatorade’s approach, if successful, would be a model for other PepsiCo brands like Quaker Oats and Tropicana.

Sorry, but turning on a piece of technology that allows you drop in unannounced to online conversations and plaster an ad on the virtual forehead of consumers does not make you a part of anyone’s social circle. It makes you that annoying person that stands on the edge of someone else’s conversation delivering unwanted comments and asides. You’re entirely missing the point of social media. My conversation with friends is not the new frontier of advertising space for you to fill. Why do you insist on running into the future with your eyes so firmly fixed on the past? It’s as bad as Hollywood’s inability to produce anything more creative than yet another remake of a remake of a remake.

The demand-side opportunity with social media is to leverage the data in all these conversations to improve your product and relevance—not to give you a more pervasive bullhorn to desperately assert your relevance. If people think your product contains high-fructose corn syrup, guess what, your product marketing has failed. Instead of trying to disabuse consumers one conversation at a time, fix your marketing. Monitoring’s great utility is to identify problems like that, and track whether the adjustments you make are having effect—and surprise!—that doesn’t creep out consumers or make them think social media is just the next spam trap.

Don’t get me wrong—I like what Gatorade is doing, in the sense of gathering insight and exploring how they engage. That’s good, and they seem a bit ahead of the curve on technology adoption. Plus, the kind of activity they’re pursuing works well for customer support: If someone mentions your product in conjunction with a problem or request, responding with timely information is helpful, not creepy. But applying the same approach at the pre-sales stage to try and drive demand on a per-conversation basis is, frankly, unimaginative. It’s the same kind of relentlessly transactional mindset that ultimately produced the CAN-SPAM act and do-not-call lists. I’d ask Gatorade to think for a moment about what it ~really~ means to be a part of someone’s social circle.

Consumers conversations are a source of incredibly valuable data. That data will dry up quickly if marketers saturate those conversations with pitches and ads. Can marketers resist killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

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