Is Social Media Undermining Brands?

By | Aug 23, 2012

Social media is hot everywhere, including in the business world. Everyone loves to talk about customers engaging with brands. But in the process, customers are also taking over brands. The message for midsize firms is that they can no longer count on shaping the conversation. But they cannot ignore it, either.

In principle this should be a marketing and PR issue, not an IT issue. But the new era of social engagement is happening online, which makes it an IT issue. This in turn means that IT managers at midsize firms will have to step up to the plate and play a key part in developing social strategy.

Barbarians at the Gate

For all that firms and marketers like to talk about engaging with their customers, the trend has long been going the other way. As Gerry McGovern points out at CMSWire, technology and the push for cost reduction have fueled this trend. Self-service has become the norm even in brick and mortar operations.

And the Web has especially favored a self-service model. Think of the popular complaint about how Amazon.com has displaced all those quirky local bookstores. (Most of them were not that quirky, and their selection was usually very limited - but that is not the popular image.)

But social media is, quite abruptly, reversing that trend. And not in a way that helps business. Indeed, McGovern characterizes the social Internet as a Trojan horse--in the original sense of the phrase.

Just ask local restauranteurs what they think about Yelp. Chances are you'll get an earful.

Yes, a brand can go viral and achieve spectacular growth. But as Australian marketing analyst Lyndall Spooner said of one such brand, it had been effectively "hijacked." Customers, not marketers, were defining it. When the company used heavy marketing to regain control of the brand, sales fell. It became just another brand.

A Challenge For IT

All of this matters to IT managers at midsize firms because the new social Internet is still part of the Internet. Firms look to their IT departments to understand social platforms and guide them in setting online social policies.

And experience shows that, in fact, people outside of IT often don't have much in-depth understanding of the social Internet and its implications. (Think of politicians and others who have posted messages to the world at large when they thought they were only sending them to a few friends.)

This reality means that the IT community at midsize firms will have to take the lead in pointing out the risks of social media and helping to devise policies to minimize those risks. Because the social Internet is not going away, and it is putting customers ever more in the driver's seat.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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