Antisocial media

In this guest posting, Rob Fraser argues why most brands should not bother with social media.

For most marketers, social media is becoming decidedly antisocial. Looking at the ever-increasing speed and magnitude of so-called “brand fails” on Facebook and Twitter, it can’t be long until senior management starts saying enough is enough.

Social media has proven to be a revolution in communications and has become an essential tool for people to interact with each other. The desire of people to interact with brands or companies or advertising messages via social channels is less proven. Except when given an opportunity to slam them.

Marketers, sold on the (relatively cheap) hot new fad have turned up like the loud, uninvited gatecrasher at a party, who interrupts people chatting to each other and ends up being turned on and turfed out by the other guests.

I think many companies are coming to the horrible realisation that when they get up close and personal with people, rather than being “liked”, they are generally loathed. That’s OK, companies exist to sell stuff and make money, not friends.

People have conversations. Companies and people don’t. People do have conversations about companies and brands. But there’s no way to manage them. The best thing companies can do is to use social channels to listen to what consumers are saying, not clumsily start uninvited conversations with them.

(Of course some companies are clear about the direction in which they are travelling and the audience they desire to reach and so are confident enough to ignore social media noise, for it matters little to their end goals).

Brands are proving to be pretty bad at using social media as an active marketing channel – exacerbated by the fact that most companies have a low tolerance for criticism combined with an innate lack of finesse in dealing with critics when they raise their heads. And the recent ruling that companies are responsible for the content of comments posted on their Facebook pages raises the stakes.

Social is an amplification media, and the reality is bad news amplifies far more readily than good, because generally people (and the media) react to the former and couldn’t give a toss about the latter. I don’t recall the term “brand win” being thrown around much in comment threads.

My opinion is that (most) companies should not bother with company/brand pages on social sites, and instead hand responsibility for social media management over to the customer service team, which has a charter (as well as the resources and experience) to deal with customer interactions, and the ability to monitor and respond to activity in social channels.

There’s no way to stop social channels exploding in “consumer advocacy” and the narrow opinions of the few being liked exponentially to the detriment of a company. But there’s no good reason for companies to provide a platform for angry consumers to launch their views of a brand into the wider world.

I’m not advocating ignoring social channels in marketing executions – use them to amplify something good (special offers, promotions, a great piece of content) and facilitate the pass-on factor that is driven and owned by the people using these channels to engage with each other.

But I suggest (most) marketers avoid the temptation to give life to their online personalities on social sites. At best you are contributing a digital tumbleweed to the desert of ignored web/social pages. At worst you are providing the lead story for tonight’s news bulletins.

Rob Fraser is the managing director of Big River Creative


  1. Hugo
    17 Aug 12
    11:05 am

  2. “That’s OK, companies exist to sell stuff and make money, not friends.”

    I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Human behavior over history shows that people will hand over their money repeatedly if they feel the exchange is worth it for them. Decent corporate behavior will make people feel ok about doing business with you, good corporate behavior will make people feel good about doing business with you. Customers who feel good about working with you will come back, customers who don’t – won’t.

    Social media engagement that enhances your brand isn’t impossible – just very hard. The author is right to suggest it isn’t right for some – its only right if the company has the will it to do it correctly.

    This isn’t just about social media savvy, it’s about the organization as a whole. Marketing cannot be separated from reality – you can sauce it up – but you can’t outright lie and not have some 13 year old find you out.
    So a couple of pre conditions to social media success are:

    a) Branding that is congruent with the actual – not just stated – values of your company
    b) Respect for Customers
    c) Respect for Staff
    If you have those three things *and* motivation to engage in social media then you will probably be successful.

    Take the social media woes of Quantas they:
    a) Brand themselves as the “Spirit of Australia” while sending jobs overseas.
    b) Leave customers around the world stranded
    c) Are at war with their staff.

    Now ask yourself, do Quantas’ twitter problems stem from their poor social media skills or from the things just listed above?
    The Author is quite right to point out that some brands shouldn’t engage in social media. But I would go further and say some Brands shouldn’t engage in social media because they are antisocial in their DNA. Not because they lack the skills.

  3. Daniel-Jacob Santhou
    17 Aug 12
    11:21 am

  4. Rob, interesting read. I’m with you on many points.

    Unfortunately, companies think that they need to be within this space. It’s an innate nature to try to dip their fingers in all parts of the pie.

    We’ve been focusing a lot on brand fails. How about some great brand wins instead?

    There are truly some brands on various social media platforms that do what these mediums are there for: socialise and interact, share and communicate.

    We alone decide what each medium is best for, and so does the masses. Unfortunately for key influencers of many of these brands, they don’t seem to spend enough time (or any) to see what people are saying and why. Many of these ‘fails’ can be avoided, resolved or even championed if necessary.

    Putting a spin on this spiel would be: What gives consumers the ‘right’ to detriment a brands value. A brand in my opinion is a personification of many values and beliefs (products or service included). Are they not cynics themselves in that they can give shit, but they can’t take any?

    I call this a case of consumers (empowerment) bullying brands.


    Daniel-Jacob Santhou

  5. Galba
    17 Aug 12
    12:38 pm

  6. “Decent corporate behavior will make people feel ok about doing business with you, good corporate behavior will make people feel good about doing business with you.”

    Whereas cheap prices will make people feel INCREDIBLE about doing business with you!

  7. Paul the freelance writer
    17 Aug 12
    1:37 pm

  8. About time the corporate world woke up to the endless tail-chasing wrought by the social media revolution.

    Unhappy customers used to write letters of complaint direct to a company’s customer relations department. These were dealt with these discreetly, with the aim of satisfying genuine complaints while maintaining a company’s good name. Discretion – a term unheard of today – was an accepted norm.

    However, among the genuine cases, a significant percentage of customer complaints have always been frivolous – ranging from serial complainers with nothing better to do, through to outright nutcases.

    Social media means anyone can do any of the above online. Instant reaction, as widely recommended foilowing the Qantas and Target cases, is therefore rendered pointless as you are obviously unable to verify the credentials or credibility of many complainants.

    Social media is invaluable for small business with local custom, and close-knit communities. For corporates, it’s a carping time-bomb. Get out. Put the money you save into advertising.

  9. Hugo
    17 Aug 12
    3:11 pm

  10. If price was the only factor in consumer behaviour – then the whole industry that this blog is about would be redundant.

  11. Golum
    17 Aug 12
    3:40 pm

  12. Rob and Paul the Freelance writer have got it spot on

    it’s called social media not corporate media and companies don’t belong there

    we will see a greater number pull out because of the net reputational harm it has caused them – there’s a growing realisation that you’re just handing the whingers a stick to beat you with

    now, brace yourselves for the inevitable posts from social media evangelists/strategists/consultants/acolytes/Facebook PR people who will tell you that any company which ignores social media “does so at its peril” (my personal favorite baseless scary assertion); that its ‘invaluable’ ‘real time’ feedback from ‘engaged customers’ (when most of it is nitpicking or simple whinging and you can get higher quality discreet feedback in many other proven ways); and that if only companies lifted their game and met consumer expectations they wouldn’t be pilloried in social media (they also wouldn’t be in business because everyone wants more for less)

  13. Les Posen
    17 Aug 12
    4:16 pm

  14. You wrote: “People have conversations. Companies and people don’t.”

    But Mitt Romney said “Corporations are people, my friend”, wrt financial institutions.

    It’s early days yet for SM and the enterprise. The rules are still being writ.

  15. Darren Horrigan
    17 Aug 12
    4:55 pm

  16. Hugo — the most sensible 300-odd words I’ve read all week. Bravo!

  17. Tony
    17 Aug 12
    5:03 pm

  18. Surely the lesson from the fails is less that these brands should ban social media as a marketing channel, but that they have to better understand how social media can help them and then be smarter and more holistic with their thinking (especially in understanding how real consumers view the brand and the brand’s overall behaviour in the real world).

    The commonality is that they were all bad ways to use the media to begin with. The difference from the old traditional days is that if you did a bad ad – and let’s face it there are plenty of them – you just get any calls or sales. Do something bad in social and the whole world get’s to join in the fun of bashing you.

  19. Adam Ferrier
    17 Aug 12
    6:43 pm

  20. Like

  21. Roger
    17 Aug 12
    9:37 pm

  22. That’s OK, companies exist to sell stuff and make money, not friends. – Well said Rob. I think media should stop write stories on how many fans a Facebook page has, what grammatical error they made etc. And you are right in saying that fans are not fans. They are there simply to cry out lout, make a big drama in the hope that an issue gets sorted soon or they get a freebie

  23. Jono McCauley
    17 Aug 12
    9:47 pm

  24. Well written piece Rob – really interesting stuff.

  25. Marto
    18 Aug 12
    6:03 am

  26. Great article. I have often laughed at the imbeciles that think people have ‘brand conversations’ – we don’t. If it’s value for money we’ll buy it. Companies that fall for the idea that people hold monologues to ponder over purchases deserve failure.

  27. Groucho
    18 Aug 12
    1:54 pm

  28. Don’t suppose I will be going to Big River Creative for elegant solutions to complex problems then. Need more than ‘don’t do it’

  29. Golum
    19 Aug 12
    10:59 am

  30. what an utterly facile comment, Groucho

    advice not to do something stupid is arguably more valuable than a wanky ‘elegant solution to a complex problem’

  31. Groucho
    19 Aug 12
    1:25 pm

  32. Gee Golum I was trying to be as facile as your sychophantic post and your silly distinction between social and corporate media. It’s all communication, it is here to stay, will develop at great speed and like anything new will trip some people with unexpected results. Your reactionary stance might get you a pat on the head from the guest poster but those who see the future as opportunity not a threat will take a more considered view and be much more use to the debate than you.

  33. Mel
    20 Aug 12
    10:08 am

  34. Great post Rob.
    Les at 4.16. Corporations aren’t people. Corporations are made up of individuals serving and bowing to the rules of that corporation. Most of the people in those corporations are looking for the fastest way out and have very little loyalty.
    They stay through fear of not being able to feed and house themselves and their families. Like most religions (including the one that Mitt Romney subscribes to) corporations are the ‘control’ of people.

  35. Téa
    20 Aug 12
    11:12 am

  36. It’s not as simple as whether they should or shouldn’t. Social Media is a tool that can be utilised to a brands advantage if used correctly… and… there is no other way to really word this… but… chill out. Stop being so afraid of negative feedback.

    If you understand the psychology of social media, it is less threatening. You have to fight humour with humour. Understand the life cycle of internet discussions, know how to recognise a troll vs a legitimate complaint. It is all so nuanced… and a lot of these problems can be addressed by *not* putting a 20 year old marketing grad with 2 weeks training in charge of social media engagement, or a team from Bangalore to write in upbeat, friendly one liners.

    Hire people that actually know how to argue on the internet and defuse them. It is an art, and if anything, the failure of big brands to get social media right is not due to a problem of social media, but a symptom of their overall attitude that they can treat social media as an afterthought… lack of strategic thinking about when & where to engage… and yes, also a strategic decision about when to NOT engage, because it is not in line with their business objectives.

    This is strategy 101, and blaming social media, which has helped a tremendous number of businesses who do it right gain traction, is not the answer. Blame the people who think they know how it all works because they work in advertising…

  37. Greg
    20 Aug 12
    2:01 pm

  38. You realise this is what people used to say about TV…

  39. Tiki Godzilla
    20 Aug 12
    2:11 pm

  40. I certainly hope that brands do not heed this sensible advice. I love that I now have an avenue to harrass, intimidate and complain publicly against organisations. And I love seeing that watershed moment when a company or brand (say, triple j for example) realises isnt as liked as it thinks it is. It is in fact; gold. Petty, but I derive great pleasure from it.

  41. Golum
    20 Aug 12
    3:55 pm

  42. Fallacious Reasoning 101: When you can’t make a credible counterargument, try to undermine the credibility of your opponent.

    That’s all you’ve done with both posts on this topic, Groucho

    the (lack of) depth of your thinking becomes more evident, the more you post – but i will at least give you full marks for breathless hyperbole – the true hallmark of the social media acolyte

    you and your pre-pubsecent ilk need to get some perspective. if you surveyed 10 average Australians you’d be lucky if one had heard of Twitter, let alone had an account.

  43. Jew Barrymore
    20 Aug 12
    6:04 pm

  44. Honestly don’t think it will be a smart move to “pull out” in future or they will be seen as “psychotic” (yeah… you know what I’m talking about).

    While your brand quivers and hides away, your competition who has found a highly skilled social media manager, is raking in all the attention.

    What you’re implying here is that the audience is at fault, when really its the person sitting on the ‘social media manager’ chair. Like the majority in our industry, nobody actually knows what they are doing. Its a new job and it will take a bit to sift out the unqualified and manage the kinks. Just look at all the corny shit I see ‘social media managers’ come up with. I cringe every time I see an attempt at a competition (Mountain Dew) or the overuse of ‘CLICK’ this and ‘LIKE’ that. No… not sustainable practice.

    In saying that, each brand requires a certain voice. You’re right when you say that some brands are trying to engage when they don’t need to. True. But overall, as a consumer as well, we have to be thankful for the collective powers we have in calling out fails.

  45. Groucho
    20 Aug 12
    10:01 pm

  46. Golum a mate of mine reckons you are Rob. I think he is wrong. Rob could mount an argument, even if it is flawed. Your response makes no sense at all. You are not an opponent, you flatter yourself. I agree with you on Twitter though. It rather supports my case I would have thought. Interestingly you do what you suggest I have, try to undermine the credibility of your supposed opponent. More than happy to debate with you once you have developed some skills. I may have died of old age by then though.

  47. Rob Fraser
    21 Aug 12
    9:54 am

  48. Thanks all for your thoughts and comments, even you Groucho.

    Picking up on a point made by Paul the freelance writer, when I say companies I mean medium to large businesses and enterprises with marketing departments, sales teams, distribution channels and generally a national footprint.

    Consultants, SOHO and small businesses in local communities may well find social media useful, but I’m not thinking about them in the context of my argument. Many of them talk and act like people as it’s mostly the founder/owner representing them.

    @Hugo you make some excellent points about company authenticity as a precursor to effective social media participation – I agree, and your argument helps make my point. Authenticity can’t be created for the sake of social media marketing, and if you don’t have it you’re not going to be successful in social channels. Do we recommend companies try to change just so they can play in social, or do we recommend they just get on with what they are doing, which is selling products and services?

    @Groucho as my piece says, I recognise the huge impact of social media as a communication tool for people, but I am not convinced it is as useful for companies in their marketing activities as many of its practitioners are saying. There’s little evidence to support the hype, and I don’t think that the effort/results ratio is working for companies and brands. Will this change? Only time will tell but I have my doubts.

    @Tea I’m not blaming social media for anything, just suggesting it’s not the best communication solution for a lot of clients. By the look of it, you offer social media services for companies, so it’s no surprise you’re an evangelist – as Maslow said, if all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to resemble a nail.

    As communications professionals our job is to solve clients’ business problems, and this works best if we have no particular self-interest driving what media channels they use. There are many tools at our disposal, and in my opinion social media is not one of the most effective communication tools that marketers might use.

    Oh, and Groucho, I’m not Golum, but I thank him/her for the support.

  49. Téa
    21 Aug 12
    10:37 am

  50. LOL Rob, I will ignore the patronising tone… I actually agree with you, I probably didn’t make it clear. What I tried to emphasise was that the *discussion* has to take place. I do provide social media strategy consulting, but I also have a Policy background…. so from my POV, the decision to have no policy, or decision not to act is as much as a valid decision as the decision to act, so long as you have considered it.

    In social media, the decision to not use certain platforms is a valid one — but it needs to be in alignment with the unique needs of the company. What applies for Virgin, may not apply for Qantas — they have different messaging strategies, cultures, capabilities & therefore it has to start at the strategic level.

    What we are witnessing now is the fallout from a lot of big companies who have decided to be on the latest & greatest gimmicks/bandwagon, rather than actually assess, strategically, whether it is of benefit.

    Any web activity (or Comms, or PR, or any other project) has to be focused, targeted and align with their other comms & marketing goals… that was my point. ROI. Speaking in absolutes that NO big company should be on social media is as silly as saying they all should. Which I did not say.

    There are opportunities to make it work for big business, but my only point was that it is irresponsible of anyone in our business to decide the solution before we even explore the problem.

    The fact that I sell social media consulting & management (as part of a whole suite of “social & web” themed consulting), feels a little ad hominem, to undermine my opinion. I am not here to sell, I am here to express my opinion (and my business, funnily enough, aligns with my area of knowledge & passion!).

    For what it is worth, I have advised people not to engage on Facebook & Twitter in the past, because it didn’t fit their objectives and they wouldn’t do it effectively… and I would never sell people something I didn’t believe they needed or couldn’t manage. A lot of other advisers seem to be doing just that — taking the money and running, rather than doing what is in the best interests of their clients (that’s a column in it’s own right…) .

    Anyway, I wanted to clarify my position, and also address any questions over my motivations to comment… :)

  51. Me
    21 Aug 12
    10:39 am

  52. “Antisocial media”

    Isn’t that what corporate involvement in online channels is? There’s a correlation between the entrance of marketers and any given platform’s downward trajectory in use.

    Sorry folks, people just don’t like it when you lot get involved and instinctively migrate somewhere else.

  53. Rob Fraser
    21 Aug 12
    12:14 pm

  54. @Tea touche

  55. Kate Richardson
    21 Aug 12
    3:04 pm

  56. Marketers, it’s not the holy grail. Here’s to more straight talking like this.

  57. jean cave
    21 Aug 12
    7:03 pm

  58. GO social media in the corporate arena. Clarify and expedite . . go forth.

  59. Tim
    22 Aug 12
    11:04 am

  60. Interesting enough. Certainly agree that social media may not be the “be all and end all” of new marketing, however there are some fine examples of great use. Telstra for one should be applauded for its take on how to use it to the best of ones ability.

  61. Craig
    22 Aug 12
    12:58 pm

  62. Rob,

    I agree.

    Most Australian ‘brand’ companies are too rules-bound, conservative and risk-averse for effective social media engagement.

    They should leave it up to public sector agencies, who do a much better job engaging online (note I am not referring to politicians – who suffer from ‘brand’ issues as well).

    Try visiting the SeeAustralia Facebook page, TheLine, Betaworks, SwapIt, AustraliaPost, the ATO SME Community, one of the blogs at Govspace, or subscribing to some of the more than 570 agency/council Twitter accounts.

    There’s hundred of other examples as well and while there’s a mix of good and bad, you’ll find in Australia that government agencies lead business in every regard when engaging via social media.

  63. Daniel
    27 Aug 12
    3:33 pm

  64. Most consumers don’t like advertising much either. Should marketers pull out of advertising? What about direct mail? The key to any marketing is to do stuff that your customers will like regardless of what channel you’re playing in (I agree that listening is part of getting that bit right). Social has a long long way to go. We’re yet to see organisations culturally commit to a transparency and very few have moved beyond a social presence which simply serves up links and the occasional image to its ‘friends’. Consumers will respond to social when they feel it delivers actual value and social has much more opportunity to do that than any other channel. The biggest mistake that brands have made is thinking that social equal social networks.

  65. Golum
    28 Aug 12
    11:05 am

  66. Daniel you’ve picked up the Fallacious Reasoning gong for the day

    that most consumers say that don’t like any form of advertising is not proof that social media campaigns should be pursued

    people fully expect to receive DM along with their gas bill, to see ads in TV commercial breaks, to see lit posters in bus shelters, to see display ads on news sites. They may not be welcome but are accepted as part of the landscape

    a faceless legal entity trying to buddy up to your photo of yourself sipping a marguerita while wearing a sombrero is unwelcome, unnatural and for most people, unacceptable

  67. Rob Fraser
    28 Aug 12
    2:58 pm

  68. @Daniel i’ve simply said social media isn’t necessarily a great active marketing channel for most companies – i don’t compare it to other forms of marketing communications. It’s absolutely true that people like talking to each other on social platforms – it’s not proven that people want to talk to companies in this environment. That’s all.

    And you seem to be saying that using social is a great opportunity for companies to “commit to a transparency”……my question remains, why? Just to use social as a marketing channel? Some companies may embrace this approach, but my argument remains that none should feel obliged if it isn’t right for them.

    Golum makes a great point about other media – the fact is advertising on TV/radio and in print/online media supports quality content, and people live with that trade-off. Other media channels have their place and offer their own unique benefits to marketers.

    It’s ironic that new social media platforms are resorting to the old school advertising model to fund them (badly and ineffectively if you look at the numbers). And in the case of brands with their own presence/pages, as Golum describes, they are participating in a sad charade.

    Social is very new and in my mind remains unproven as an active marketing channel for most companies (either as an advertiser or a participant) – as in every gold rush though, the people making all the money are the ones selling shovels.

  69. Rushdie
    28 Aug 12
    3:25 pm

  70. Did someone say…shit flinging troll?

  71. Golum
    29 Aug 12
    1:43 pm

  72. the rub lies in your last point there, Rob – “as in every gold rush though, the people making all the money are the ones selling shovels”. These would be the multitude of social media evangelists/acolytes/consultants/Facebook PR people who’ve conned naive and trusting marketing directors into trashing their company’s reputation.

    They’d be the same people who frenetically post illogical defences of any criticism of social media on this blog and elsewhere. The most spendidly undergraduate “opportunity to commit to transparency” being chief among them.

  73. Agreed
    1 Sep 12
    1:13 am

  74. Some do it better than others, but social media is basically a soap box for people to either complain or praise a service. And for some brands it’s wrong. Who wants to click ‘like’ for libra tampons or toilet tissue? Liking brands reflects on your own social profile, so many are not going to ‘like’ something unless it makes them look cooler. Lesson one.

    In reality it’s just another touch point for a consumer to engage with your brand. As its difficult to control, certain services may be better off staying out of the realm altogether. Ask any social media expert and they’ll tell you all bands should have a presence. Ask any brand expert and they’ll tell you the reasons it may be beneficial to have a presence and the potential pitfalls.

    I’ve had so many briefs recently that are about getting likes on Facebook rather than giving people a reason to like them on Facebook. And I think we should all take a page from the brands that get millions of likes without creating an awesome social presence – brands like Nike or Harley Davidson. It’s the same as being friends with someone in real life, you only add them because you like them.

    Which is why social should be the result, not the cause, of any brief.