Companies should be themselves in social media

by Tom Albrighton 26 April 2010 Digital and social, Tone of voice

I’m always amused by the savage beatdowns that are meted out to firms who are perceived to have failed in social media (see this page on Nestlé and Facebook for a recent example). What do people expect? At the end of the day, it’s one person doing the Tweeting or the wall-writing. They’re at work, not relaxing at home, and they’re obliged to ‘be the brand’ online. It can’t be easy. And if you push them far enough, they’re bound to snap.

Personally, I welcome it. At least we know they’re human. What’s the alternative? Everyone loves to flame the failures, but would we really be happier with a smoothly oiled PR machine, trotting out relentlessly positive, shallow responses to critical tweets, like a politician?

Although social media has a diverse user base, there’s a recognisable ‘SM personality’ that seems to predominate: young (or young at heart); generally positive; informal; chirpy (bordering on facetious); marketing and new media literate. When people berate companies for having the ‘wrong’ social media voice, they usually mean that the company in question has taken a tone that’s too far from this norm. But if your firm’s true ‘personality’ doesn’t conform, should you affect a different tone of voice to fit in?

Many firms have struggled to find their voice in social media. Some have rather stiffly adopted it as a purely ‘push’ channel, conducting a monologue rather than a dialogue. Some, like Habitat, have been hauled over the coals for underhand techniques. And some, like ASOS, are blessed with enough photogenic, web-savvy, Twitter-literate staff to give them all usernames and let them loose (see @ASOS_Amy, @ASOS_Nat and others).

A while ago, I blogged on the topic of honesty in marketing: the idea that by promoting a message that accurately reflects what the organisation is really like, we can be more congruent, more confident and (I believe) more effective in terms of reaching new customers. So why shouldn’t firms’ negative character traits come through in their social media? It may not fit the rigid stereotype of ‘engagement’, but perhaps it’s more honest in the deepest sense.

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  • So true. This honesty becomes even more important when you look at smaller companies or even sole proprietors. Often, our name is our brand, and it can be difficult to always “be the brand” when you’re also obviously a person. Facebook is such a great example of this. I’ve been on Facebook since its beginnings, when it was just for college students. Then it became a place where I shared pictures and messages with friends and family, but now I have colleagues on there, too.

    So the line between the business and the personal becomes blurred. What if I want to update about my dog’s sleeping habits or a new shampoo that has me in a good mood from its scent? My family and friends might find these things funny because there are inside jokes there, but colleagues, not so much. On the other hand, I find people who only update to market themselves to be boring, and I don’t consider their online persona to be an honest reflection of who they are. So I guess it’s all about finding a balance…
    .-= Natalia M. Sylvester´s last blog ..Without a clear message, words become text =-.

  • Hi Natalia

    Thanks for commenting. With the UK General Election forthcoming, I was recently chatting on Twitter about whether business people should reveal (or promote) their personal politics through social media. For my part, I’d be concerned about alienating potential clients – a cowardly position, or a prudent one, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, it’s another area where honesty may or may not be the best policy…

  • It’s a very valid point. Paradoxically, buying into a brand might be that little bit easier if it displays the occasional weakness. It’s not unlike your friends and family. You love them for who they are.
    Warts and all.

  • The ‘Nestlé and Facebook’ example makes a good test case for this point. Corporate honesty is important, but how does a company express who ‘it’ is (especially when there’s only one person to do it)?

    The person responsible for Nestlé’s Facebook page clearly wasn’t anyone senior. They were defensive and rigid – to me, the hallmark qualities of a subordinate, not someone in a position of power. But their reaction also speaks to their mandate, which was probably fairly minimal. As such, I think that they weren’t equipped to react ‘as if they were the company’, which isn’t the same as being honest when you’re acting on behalf of an organisation.

    So what does a company project when it’s ‘being itself’. Companies, as entities, possess a corporate ethos (of sorts). If they want to try and establish ‘who they are’ in a world where they aren’t physically present, they need to examine this and establish or systematise their corporate values in a way that can translate into a guide for whoever ends up maintaining their Facebook profile, for example.

    The reason for this is that we can’t really interact with companies based on their products, which mostly convey their desire to sell said products. Occasionally we get a glimpse of something more, such as an emphasis on recycling or Fair Trade etc. Companies should use intros like these and expand on them in social media to create a better image for themselves and so increase brand reputation. Nestlé could have opened with, ‘We see you’ve recycled our logo, but do you recycle our product packaging?’

    A cynic would say, ‘Yes, but they still aren’t being honest.’ Maybe so, but the upside here is that down the road they might actually start thinking the way they’re pretending to think now. And that would be better for all of us.
    .-= Johan van der Merwe´s last blog ..Introducing Johan, our new copywriter =-.

  • Authenticity is critical for brands. But it can’t be forced. Also, QC is a critical factor to consider. The last thing a brand needs is for someone to snap in the social space. But randomly tweeting, ‘Had a nice lunch today with @someone.” as a recognized ambassador of a brand makes that brand more human in my mind. Which also means using real pictures in their avatars, perhaps with a small logo somewhere. But we’re idiots if we think that THE LOGO TWEETING is somehow Tony the Tiger. They’re people.

    I am a huge endorser of brands doing their own work in social media (less the complex digital campaigns that supplement the routine, human stuff). They just need a plan, and some rules. Not rigid rules, but the kind of rules you have for email – after all, everyone at a company can pick up the phone or send an email, right? The only other option is to hire copywriters to be human for the brand.
    .-= Jim Mitchem´s last blog ..The Science of Social Media =-.

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  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    A bit of honesty, within reason, should be a good thing. One of the wonderful things about social media is the “humanness” of it. And as we all know, we humans are far from perfect.