At best, people have ambivalent feeling about clowns. On one end of the spectrum, there's the relatively benign Bozo the Clown, a historic television favorite whose name implied entertaining, well-meaning buffoonery. There's also the sad beauty of the crying clown of the opera Paglicci. Then, at the other end, the worst nightmare of anyone suffering from full-blown coulrophobia -- the "scary clown."
Pretty much any way you look at it, there's not a lot of upside to being called a clown. So imagine my feelings when my PR firm sent me this post they found on Twitter about my company's recent attendance at an Adobe trade show:
"I thought Sapient was a mgmt consulting co? They're the booth next to us at Adobe Max and they're complete clowns" --Message posted on Twitter by [name withheld], November 19, 2008
My initial reaction was as impulsive. I wanted to shoot off a response along the lines of Joe Pesci in Good Fellas: "...I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?" I mean, being called a clown typically isn't good (unless you're running a clown college, then it's merely acknowledgment of professional achievement).
Then, I wanted to correct the misinformation: Sapient is actually the fastest-growing, independent interactive agency in the world.
(I realize that, of course, since I have this forum, now I don't have to... but let's imagine I don't).
Then, I decided I would find this person's contact information and personally reach out to him and ask what our team was doing that had offended him and see if I could rectify the situation or provide feedback to our team.
Ultimately, I let it slide. The tweet was actually written by a reporter who doesn't cover the interactive space so his opinion in regard to our status as clowns (to which he's entitled) is largely irrelevant. He was, however, incorrect about our status as an interactive agency. Was it worth a quick, polite tweet to correct him? Upon reflection, I realized that engagement would have merely drawn further attention to the tweet and would have potentially resulted in some unpleasant back-and-forth with the potential for broader pickup. For now it (this article notwithstanding) isn't appearing on any searches I can find and is having minimum impact on our businesses reputation.
Ultimately, this is a useful lesson that marketers will have to learn in this new age of citizen journalists. Social media presents tremendous opportunities to connect with potential customers but it also requires a thick skin, some self-restraint and, most importantly, the wisdom to know when and how to communicate. Everyone's a critic and with social tools like blogs, Twitter and even the commentary of YouTube, it's increasingly easy to publicly voice satisfaction with, criticism of or just questions about a brand.
Here are some tips on how to stay informed and react appropriately:
Monitor/Research. You may not respond to every negative posting but it's a good idea to know what is being said about your brand. On the simple side, Twitter has an excellent search function (search.twitter.com) that allows for quick scans to keep track of your brand on Twitter. You can also use basic blog searching tools like Google or Technorati to look for chatter related to any keywords. This can create insanity, however, so use the 80/20 rule here -- spend 80% of your time tracking the most influential contributors and 20% taking stock of what else is being said.
Try analysis tools. You might not always be able to get a truly deep and immersive understanding of what's being said about any subject, person or brand using these methods. I strongly recommend, if you have the resources, to use a full-blown social-media-analysis tool or service. It will literally change the way you market. I've spent some time analyzing the best way to pick a tool out of the over 60 vendors on the market.
Consider the source. Look at the recent around Johnson and Johnson's ill-advised Motrin Mom campaign. Angry "Mommy Bloggers," led by Los Angeles blogger Jessica Gottlieb and her 1,000-plus bloggers, used Twitter to get mighty J&J to do an about-face on a large ad campaign. So there's power in numbers. As social media gadfly Peter Shankman said on his blog, "Mommy-Bloggers are not a voice to be messed with." That is a situation that requires a thoughtful, timely response. Conversely, the cranky individual making an offhand comment to his dozen or so followers probably doesn't merit a response.
Tone. You're not writing a letter to your bitter ex-wife. Here's the tricky one and the one I see most commonly botched. First it's important to note that if you're paying attention as recommended above, things won't get so out of control that you have to publish a letter from your CEO on the home page of your website. When you do find something that you'd like to address, send a personable email that engages the other person. Encourage them to respond with more feedback -- even offer to get on the phone. You'll be shocked to see the difference this makes. If anyone doubts me, look at what Comcast has done with their digital engagement team. (As a note to several other companies, I don't care how nice your lawyer is -- don't have your legal firm send the note either.)
Opinion or fact? Is it simply a quickly-dashed-off opinion, or is it something that is completely incorrect? And if it's the latter, is it dangerously incorrect—something that could have ramifications with customers, partners, investors, or the media?
Ultimately, think twice before you respond. One of the challenges of social networks like Twitter is the syndication capabilities. Followers will respond to items and others will post their tweets to Facebook as their status lines, which often invites further comment. Don't lose your cool with a hurtful 140-character response -- who knows where it may appear? I didn't want to see references to myself as "Sapient's Snarky Clown," for example.
When in doubt, think of the sage words your mother probably gave you regarding sticks and stones and how they hurt more than names. She probably also told you not to be afraid of clowns. Sometimes it seems like there are a lot of clowns out there in marketing so she may have been wrong about that one.~ ~ ~
Freddie Laker is the director of digital strategy at Sapient. He has also founded the Society of Digital Agencies, a collective of notable digital agencies focused on thought leadership and positive industry change and blogs at www.takemetoyourleader.com.