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Conversations, crises & community: Managing your brand in the social era

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Since uTest is a crowdsourcing startup with a steep growth curve and expanding brand footprint, I’m often asked how companies can leverage social to grow their brand and engage with customers. And that’s a fair question. The problem is, that’s not really what most marketing execs want to know. What they actually mean is, “How can I use social media to tell people what they should know about my brand/product/service?”

And the simple answer is, you can’t. That ship sailed long ago. Brand management as a monologue died more than a decade ago when blogging hit the mainstream and turned the conversation around a brand into a dialogue. And social media has taken that discussion and amplified it, diversified it and fragmented it into a thousand sources and tangents.

Thus, the role of “brand management” must evolve into one of facilitating conversations via social. Gone are the days of telling the market what to think about your product. Even powerhouse brands like Pepsi, Nike and Sony aren’t immune from this new reality, which is why you’re seeing more campaigns that drive user interactivity, engagement and discussion through social channels. It’s also why you see those brands that really get social adopting a different, more human, more transparent tone.

And if ceding control of the conversation seems risky, scary or dangerous, then you’re paying attention, because it is. But the payoff is more than worth it (plus, you don’t have a choice anyway). The complaints of an individual user or rants of a former customer are no longer the problem of the customer service team. Social media means they’re your problem.

The role of brand stewards is now to join the discussion that’s already happening on social media – and it will happen with or without you. Only by communicating honestly and openly (the good, the bad, and the ugly), can you build an authentic brand that connects with users. The illusion of sheen, polish and perfection has been shattered. This applies to our heroes, to our leaders and, yes, to our brands.

Easy to say, but hard to do, right?

Let me share a quick story from the uTest universe of software testing. In early 2010, we encountered a problem with our tester payment functionality. “Problem” is probably being too kind, as it implies that we paid them two hours late or mixed up the payments to a few testers. In this instance, we inadvertently DOUBLE PAID every single tester in our community for two weeks worth of work.

The brand manager in me wanted desperately to keep this quiet, to sweep it under the rug, and to be ready to spin the story if the bad news somehow leaked. I mean, this was bad on a number of levels—including from a financial perspective (double payment tends to hurt margins a bit) and a reputation perspective (testing companies aren’t supposed to have bugs!).

But as the events unfolded, we chose an unconventional path in the annals of crisis management—we broke the story ourselves. That’s right, we blogged, Tweeted and shared the news of our blunder. We took every question from journalists and bloggers and answered them transparently, sans the spin.

And, in the end, our brand came out stronger for it—yes, we screwed up, but the story became about the response of our testers in sending money back to us and helping us to diagnose the problem. And I’ve had dozens of our testers and customers tell me how much they respected us for being willing to show the world our warts. That it made us more credible in their eyes and that they felt closer to uTest because we didn’t try to act as though nothing had happened.

My lessons from this: Yes, mistakes will happen and the world will find out about them. Product launches will go awry. Execs will give inflammatory quotes. Competitors will steal major accounts. But how you respond to these inevitable speed bumps has a more lasting impression on what your users think of you than the incidents themselves.

So open the kimono … be transparent… don’t fool yourself into thinking that your users love you because you’re perfect. Take your next crisis as an opportunity to be boldly honest. In this day and age, your brand will benefit, and you’ll gain a reputation for shooting straight.

I’m curious to hear other stories of brands that get (or don’t get) the new dynamics of the social era. Drop us a comment and share.

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