Don't Blame Google Sidewiki if Your Brand Takes Another Hit

Marketers Will Find Themselves Making Moves They Don't Want to Unless They Have a Real Strategy

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Two words: "reputational triangulation."

That's our new reality in managing brands. This became obvious to me after spending countless hours with my Nielsen colleagues, as well as a growing roster of clients, talking about the implications of Google Sidewiki, the easy-to-install browser add-on that wraps consumer commentary and feedback commentary -- even the harsh, unsettling stuff -- around webpages, including branded ones.

Just when brands thought they might muster a passable social-media "sense and respond" defense against the brutal realities of consumer nastygrams or Google search-result hogging, or just when they figured out a few tricks for managing Wikipedia and all those activists and product recalls that make their way onto your entry, brands must now contend with yet another trust broker that wraps candid conversation around their cherished homefront, whether they like it or not.

Triangulation, in addition to being a way to locate one's position, is also a tactic used in chess. To use triangulation is, as Wikipedia tells us, "to put one's opponent in a zugzwang," meaning you force your opponent to make a move he would prefer not to make. Too much triangulation, and the escape doors start to permanently close. Either that, or your brand starts to look sideways.

Which leads us to back to Sidewiki: What's the big deal? According to Google, Sidewiki "allows you to contribute helpful information next to any web page. Google Sidewiki appears as a browser sidebar, where you can read and write entries along the side of the page." A Sidewiki post can be started by anyone with a Google account. There is no moderator, and only the entry author (or Google) can remove an entry. Interestingly, entries are not sequential and appear instead based on Google's proprietary ranking algorithm, which takes into account ratings, previous user entries and other factors known only to Google. In theory, it's supposed to keep less-relevant or less-useful entries from being seen (which could, of course, include company rebuttals or clarifications).

I've played with it a bit, and with enough user participation, it promises a steady stream of headaches for brands already playing "whack a mole" in this social media "age of expression." For many brands, including those in pharma and health care, it may drive uncomfortable levels of transparency. On the flip side, for new product launches, it might actually provide doses of early love that brands need to reinforce "reason to believe."

Overall, Sidewiki has all the trappings of yet another -- to borrow a piece of Chris Brogan's new book title -- "trust agent." This is hardly inconsequential. Thanks to the explosion of consumer commentary, Wikipedia, search results, blogs, Twitter and now Sidewiki, positive, negative and sometimes toxic reference points are circling brands in unsettling, if not destabilizing, ways. From a pure ROI perspective, these vehicles invade both the consumer purchase funnel and the mind-set of other influencers who almost seamlessly stumble into these issues.

Unfortunately for brands, the perceived or accepted truth (in the eyes of consumers) is often in conflict with what brands posit on their websites, press releases and executive speeches.

But is Google the enemy, frenemy or whatever evil culprit we want to call it today? Not really. Google's just surfing the wave we've -- dare I say -- "co-created" with consumers. Isn't everyone embracing "participation" at full throttle? In the last few months, we've seen thousands of brands and marketers hang up "talk to us" shingles on Twitter. Frito-Lay is about to designate not one but four Super Bowl ads for user-generated content. Forrester just cranked out another report that put "participation" in the pantheon of next-generation marketing "P's."

Folks, we've bought into this reality, and reputational triangulation is one of many potential side-effects of embracing and funding conversation.

So how do brands fight reputational triangulation? Or is "fight" even the right word?

First and foremost -- and please write this down -- social media is not a life raft or cure-all. Social media's echo chamber merely reflects current realities, so unfortunately, if you have serious weak points, no tweet or blog entry or CEO video clip will help.

Indeed, the issues that search, Wikipedia and now Sidewiki kick up are much more foundational to brand standing. Front-page Google search tends to remind us of product failures and service performance. Wikipedia rubs brand history -- including any skirmish with activists -- in our noses. Bloggers and Twitterites thrive by finding disconnects between what brands say and do, especially via advertising claims.

Those are more foundational issues, which means the rapid-fire interventions of a social-media manager is no replacement for a forward-thinking brand strategy. Rethinking business processes or the core brand-value proposition may get you out of the hole faster than a witty and timely tweet.

That's not to suggest you can't do anything now. The chance of persuading management to do anything is nil if you don't listen smartly and parlay the blemishes into a focused call-to-action. So keep building a really smart listening infrastructure, inclusive of all expression sources and wired to your existing ones. And makes sure all brand stakeholders who have any level of external influence are wired to the pulse.

Oh, and if you really want to kick the first tire on living in a world of "reputational triangulation," you might set aside some time to ponder Sidewiki. Trust me, your management will take notice on this one.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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