By Andrew Girdwood, Head of Search at bigmouthmedia.
Blogs and social networks are powerful. In some cases bloggers have put their heart and soul into their little corner of the internet. It is not uncommon to find social network communities where individual members have invested weeks of their time and become respected and trusted by their online neighbours.
It should come as no surprise that there is huge potential for a significant and hideous backlash in response to badly conceived attempts to manipulate social networks and bloggers in order to broadcast a commercial message.
Tom Coates, of Yahoo, expressed his views of social media marketers on his own blog (plasticbag.org), "They consider my personal voice a commodity to be acquired, along with what little credibility and authenticity I have. This - I'm afraid - just p*s**s me off."
Let's review. Blogs and social networks are powerful but it seems all too easy to fall headfirst into a public relations pit trap. Perhaps it would be best to leave well alone and back away?
No. That's not the best strategy either.
Over the United States, the retailer Target tried the "ignore them and they'll go away" tactic and found themselves in the middle of an outcry which reached the pages of the New York Times. Even the Parents for Ethical Marketing (on their own blog) commented on the perceived slur.
We come to the most important two rules of marketing when it comes to blogs and social networks.
Rule One - the blogs and social networks are not going away, blogging was not simply a fad and marketing and PR strategies must acknowledge this.
Rule Two - bloggers should be shown the same level of respect as journalists or reviewers from traditional press enjoy.
Social media marketers will often say that "pull" is better than "push". Brands can invest heavily in pull marketing strategies and so it is both a terrible shame and a marketing crime to mess up on the communication at the last and most precious stage of the pull.
Today, every single action a marketing campaign makes causes a ripple of pull marketing on the web. Brands, marketing teams and PR managers must be prepared.
Once marketing and communication teams are prepared to deal professionally with bloggers and queries generated from social networks it is possible to be safely proactive in the social media scene.
Search marketing has evolved the press release and social media marketing will do it again. Press releases are now crafted to contain the appropriate keywords links back to the strategically relevant pages of a website. Press releases are sent directly to respected journalists and to online news hubs which are monitored by professionals, search engines and bloggers too.
To an extent this is engaging with blogs and social networks. It is often appropriate and more effective to communicate directly to key influencers within a community of bloggers or social networks
However, it is never appropriate to send an unsolicited press release to a blogger. A safe social media policy is to get permission from bloggers before any news or announcements are sent to them.
The skill in the social media campaign is not simply in tailoring the news in such a way that it interests the blogger but in that initial approach.
A copy'n'paste pre-scripted comment dropped in a blog will more likely be seen as intrusive or manipulative than a comment written by hand and appropriately tailored to the blogger.
Any communications with bloggers should be overt and fully disclosed. Attempts to masquerade as an interested member of the public are destined to fail badly. A glance at FSA regulations makes it clear it is illegal to dish out insurance advice if you're being paid by an insurance provider and are keeping that secret.
A disclosure policy is best practice when engaging with social networks and forums too. Forum moderators and network administrators can trace IP addresses back to corporations or marketing agencies.
Community members are likely to react negatively and vocally when they discover a marketing agency or, worse, a journalist hired by a marketing agency, has been lurking unannounced in their midst.
On the other hand, companies which clearly identify themselves and offer helpful advice will be welcomed as a valuable member of the community.
Openness and honesty are best. The internet is a busy place and there are many influential bloggers and social networks who are genuinely interested in communication.
There is no need to bother bloggers who would rather be left alone. There are many reasons to engage intelligently in conversations as they happen - whether that is an email approach from a blogger or a discourse on a forum or community.
Once successfully conversing with a blogger or social community the opportunities to share good news and updates will occur naturally and safely.
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