In the mid- to late-90s, many business leaders observed the advent of the Web and asked the wrong question:  “What will the Internet do for us?”  Instead, they should have been asking, “What will the Internet do to us?” 

The difference between these two questions is the difference between a false sense of security and a necessity for action.  It’s the difference between Amazon organizing itself around the online channel in 1994 and Barnes & Noble opening an e-commerce site in 1997—today Amazon is worth $55.7B and Barnes & Noble has a $1.1B market cap.   It’s also the difference between newspapers struggling with a 70% decline in classified advertising over the course of a decade and eBay seeing revenues increase over 1900% in the same period.

Today, many business leaders are again asking the wrong question:  “What will social media do for us?” instead of “What will social media do to us?”  The difference between those two questions will define the business winners and losers of the next decade.  Let’s explore what social media already is doing to business and how organizations must adapt. 

Much has been written about “social media PR crises” such as Nestlé/Greenpeace situation and the “United Breaks Guitars” video, but I’d like to explore these events not from the angle of what the companies did or didn’t do but instead what these incidents tell us about how your brands can prepare for the changes social media is bringing to business communications and operations.  Here is a brief summary of these two high-profile social media examples: 


What can we can learn from the Nestlé and United occurrences?  Here are seven "musts" that smart companies will adopt in the age of social media:      

  • You must be proactive.  Every enterprise has some issues that are ticking time bombs waiting to explode in social media.  Nestlé had been linked to concerns over palm oil and deforestation for years, so some within the organization had to have suspected it was a matter of "when" and not "if" this topic would explode.  And this is not an isolated case;  I’ve worked with brands that refuse to promote their event marketing programs out of fear announcing event dates will furnish advocacy groups with time to organize protests.  You can no longer run and hide from these sorts of issues, but neither do you need to cave to pressures from the minority.  The key is to identify the issues that can explode in the future, engage proactively with a wide range of consumers, educate honestly, listen sincerely, change consumer perception when you can, and change your company when you can’t. 
  • You must improve customer support.  For too long, companies have viewed customer support as a cost to be managed rather than as a strategic imperative that affects brand perception.  Today, consumer frustration over perceived service snafus can result in millions of negative impressions, and those impressions get more attention and are more believable to consumers than brand-sponsored advertising impressions.  Marketers must view their customer service organizations as a key component in brand-building efforts, and service leaders must prioritize advocacy measurements as equally or more important than cost metrics. 
  • You must listen.  Consumer expectations around support are shifting rapidly.  Those who are more engaged (and influential) in social media no longer are opting to pick up the phone and wait on hold to receive the support they expect;  instead, they’re voicing concerns and complaints in open channels like Twitter and expecting companies will respond.  And if a brand fails to do so?  The complaints and negative impressions will only pile deeper.  This trend will accelerate as social media adoption continues to grow, so forward-looking organizations like Comcast and Best Buy have taken the lead in developing proactive service in social channels.  Organizations must implement listening and plan for response or they will suffer the consequences that can come from hundreds of consumers telling thousands (or millions) of people that the company’s products don’t work and service is inferior. 
  • You must participate.  I’ve had some clients ask me if the Nestlé situation reveals a risk of participating in Facebook;  they ask, doesn’t doing so provide a soapbox that may be used by others to criticize or embarrass the company?  While it’s never pleasant to be taken off of message and forced to respond to a negative claim, what exactly is the alternative in our more social world?  Damage is being done to your brand whether consumers complain in your Facebook group or they do so across hundreds of Twitter accounts, blogs and YouTube channels.  And which PR fire would you rather fight—the big one happening in your Facebook group where you have a voice and fans or thousands of little PR blazes scattered across social media where your brand’s participation may not be welcome?  Brands cannot gain control of their brand messaging by failing to participate but instead earn the right to shepherd their brands through presence and engagement in consumers’ favored social channels.
  • You must respond.  In the pre-Internet days, disgruntled consumers and irate advocacy groups could mount letter-writing or PR campaigns, but companies could easily choose to ignore these since acknowledging them would only bring more media attention.  Today, how can you ignore damaging accusations that accumulate within your own Facebook group?  You can’t; inaction breeds frustration, annoyance and distrust.  Responding doesn’t mean immediately doing whatever complainers want you to do;  instead the secret to social media success is to respond positively, discredit those who are simply wrong, migrate fuming consumers in need of support to private communication channels and engage openly on those issues about which consumers care deeply.
  • You must move faster.  Eighteen months ago Johnson & Johnson’s Motrin stumbled into a now infamous PR problem with the release of a video ad on their Web site.  J&J was criticized by some for its slow response, despite the fact they acted just days after the complaints started appearing in social media.  Many of us just got used to “Internet time,” but “social media time” moves even quicker.  In a world where marketers create five-year plans and dedicate months to developing ad campaigns, social media moves in real time.  Marketers who adopt adaptive marketing techniques will create an enormous competitive advantage over those who try to approach social media as “business as usual.”
  • You must realize every employee is a marketer.  My friend Cindi Thomas wrote a thought-provoking blog post in which she argues that Nestlé did more right than wrong on Facebook.  While I am not entirely in agreement with Cindi, she makes an excellent point:  “(Nestlé) trusted their employees to represent their beliefs. They are now dealing with the reaction to their beliefs, not their presence in social media.”  Twenty years ago, had Greenpeace mounted a PR campaign, Nestlé would have taken time to craft a response that was reviewed and approved by several layers of executives before being disseminated through PR channels;  the total time to reach consumers’ eyes and ears would’ve been weeks or months.  But today, Nestlé’s official response was crafted by one employee in the time it took to type Facebook status updates such as, “I suppose I could repeat 'as fast as food safety allows' and then you could repeat your post,” “It's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus,” and “Oh please .. it's like we're censoring everything to allow only positive comments.”  Your brand messaging will be delivered as much by employee messages in social media as by paid advertisements; marketers must train every employee about his or her vital role in crafting the brand through participation in social media. 


The Web changed everything–recruiting, hiring, consumer expectations, customer support, marketing strategies, IT investments, corporate structure, job responsibilities, workplace skills, employer/employee relations and more.  Social Media is already doing the same, and with consumer adoption continuing and Facebook and Twitter extending their reach with new tools that enable the social web, we are nowhere near the end of the changes social media will bring to the business environment. Social Media will do much for brands, but it is how an organization anticipates and plans for what social media will do to brands that will create competitive advantages in our newly social world.