The Internet didn’t have to be as an anonymous as it is

I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Internet was anonymous by design or that it could have been designed differently. I had simply accepted it as it was. But it was time to think differently.

Jaron Lanier

“There was a choice to make the Internet more anonymous than it might have been and there are a whole bunch of interesting sociological and, even, religious fantasies that lead into that choice. But this, this, combination of anonymity and, and, social mixing can bring out the worst in people. So, it’s absolutely true that it’s an authentic part of human nature, but it’s not necessarily always the best part, and so it does concern me.” Jaron Lanier during an On Point with Tom Ashbrook interview.

After listening to Lanier say the above quote, I paused the interview and sat quietly. It was one of those moments when you realize that your whole world just changed, that you thought you had it all figured out and learned you didn’t.  I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Internet was anonymous by design or that it could have been designed differently. I had simply accepted it as it was. But it was time to think differently.

Looking at traditional forms of communication, it isn’t impossible, but incredibly hard to voice an opinion without attaching your name to it. Newspapers won’t print anonymous editorials, radio stations don’t have anonymous people as guests, political campaigns can’t advertise without revealing sources of funding, and, in some states, it’s even illegal to hold a street-corner protest while concealing your identity. 

But the Internet is different. It’s very easy to be anonymous.  It takes less than 5 minutes to set-up a random screen name and begin using it to say whatever you want, without fear of someone finding out who you are.  And therein lies the danger. People are much more censured when they know their name is attached to something. When it isn’t, they feel free to say hurtful and untrue things. Once published, the nature of the Internet allows these messages to spread at speeds a viral marketer can only dream of. The amount of damage done by a singe hurtful or untrue comment is immense.

Just recently, the Battle Creek Enquirer along with newspapers across the country, began hiding the public comments section below news stories. When announcing the change in the paper on June 15, 2010, the Enquirer’s Managing Editor, Eric Greene, wrote, “The reason we, and almost every other news outlet in the land, allow online comments is because we want to promote a free exchange of ideas. However, despite our intentions, the online discussions too often are dominated by a few people who, with their behavior, effectively suppress others’ voices. When anyone feels like it’s a waste of their time to speak up, that’s when we know our online forums aren’t living up to expectations.” As a regular online reader, I am glad for the change, but find it disturbing that the newspapers have to hide the comments because of their hateful and abusive nature.

So what is the answer? The truth is, I’m not quite sure.  But I do think a good first step is for all of us to think about this differently, to throw away our assumption that the Internet has to be anonymous, and decide whether we agree with the anonymity or not.  Then we can figure out what we need to do.

For me, the bottom line is, the Internet didn’t have to be as anonymous as it is and I don’t think it’s a good thing.

Social media strategy means starting with a goal and losing control

Social media can be a brands best or worst enemy. In a flash, it can propel the success of a brand. However, it can also easily create its demise. The difference, more often than not, has to do with the goals of the social media strategy and whether or not an organization is willing to lose a little bit of the control.

FedEx is one of many brands hijacked by consumers.

Social media can be a brands best or worst enemy. In a flash, it can propel the success of a brand. However, it can also easily create its demise.  The difference, more often than not, has to do with the goals of the social media strategy and whether or not an organization is willing to lose a little bit of the control.
 
In marketing, advertising and public relations, it’s very common to hear an organization say that they need a facebook/youtube/twitter account. However, when pressed, the people requesting them are unable to point to a clear goal or rationale as to why they need them. They just think that everyone else has one, so they should have one too.  This is where the danger lies.  Entering into social media marketing without clear goals is like accepting a job offer where you don’t really understand what you will be doing, how your performance will be measured, or how many hours per week you will be working.  It just doesn’t make sense and it spells a recipe for disaster.
 
The correct way develop a social media strategy is to look at an organization’s goals as well as the organization’s marketing goals and determine if social media can have a positive impact on attaining those goals. This may take some time to evaluate as the organization will have to consider their target market (examples: Does the target market react favorably to companies on social media sites? Do they use social media sites?) as well as evaluate what company resources are available to maintain the sites (example: Is there someone in the organization who has the time/ability to maintain these on a daily basis?). Only after than can an organization begin to listen, respond, and eventually start conversations.
 
Another large factor for developing a strong social media strategy is to acknowledge and embrace a lack of control over the conversations and, in some ways, the brand.  In Alex Wipperfurth’s book, Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing, he discusses how social media and consumers now determine a brand. For those marketers used to controlling the pantone colors of each ad or methodically removing any copyright violation mentions of the brand, this can be a difficult change. Social media has created a way for consumers to publish content at amazing speeds and have an overwhelming impact on the views of an organization.  Marketers must learn to embrace this and join these conversations in a very non-controlling, cooperative way.  This may mean that if students create a “We love x University” facebook fan page using the trademarked logo, the University doesn’t retaliate with a trademark lawsuit, but rather joins the page. It also means that if someone creates a page where consumers can complain about a certain vehicle, that the company that makes the vehicle doesn’t work to get the page taken down, but rather interacts with the consumers on the page to make their product better. A solid social media strategy will acknowledge this change and provide guidance as to how the organization will respond.
 
Today’s wise marketer must not succumb to requests to create or participate in social media before looking at the overall social media strategy and preparing for a loss of control. Ignoring either of these key components can quickly plummet a brand into the depths of unknown, forgotten, or hated brands.

Viral marketing means taking risks and reaping unexpected rewards

There is a misconception in academe, and I dare say in most organizations, that community leaders and esteemed donors don’t have a sense of humor like the rest of the population. Therefore, any sort of comedy should be avoided. Macalester, however, took the opposite approach and challenged us all, no matter who we are, to have a laugh with them and it paid off through increased alumni contacts and donations.

In February 2010, Macalester College, a small private liberal arts college in Minnesota, published a YouTube video titled President’s Day at Macalester College “to entertain and engage people and capture something of the spirit of the college” (Rosenburg, 2010).  This hilarious video shows the President performing various tasks around the campus, including chasing a squirrel, directing a choral group in a rendition of Jay Sean’s Down, and wearing a sandwich sign to try to solicit donations for the college. The video, currently up to 52,000 views, went viral quickly, with 10,000 views within the first 72 hours, reposts on a wide variety of blogs (Rosenburg, 2010), and a nod from the Chronicle of Higher Education in a Tweed titled, We Love These College Videos. Later, the President of Macalester, Brian Rosenburg, wrote an article about the experience on the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing how the experience truly made him a believer in the power of social media. According to the article, not only did the video entertain, engage, and capture the spirit of the college, but it heightened awareness, resulted in contacts from fans and alumni from across the world, and spiked contributions to the college.
 
The video engaged its audience through an unexpected sense of humor. Traditionally private liberal colleges are, well, traditional; there is little room for humor and poking fun at the college or the president would never be tolerated. There is a misconception in academe, and I dare say in most organizations, that community leaders and esteemed donors don’t have a sense of humor like the rest of the population. Therefore, any sort of comedy should be avoided. Macalester, however, took the opposite approach and challenged us all, no matter who we are, to have a laugh with them and it paid off through increased alumni contacts and donations. Perhaps this will inspire other higher education institutions to do the same. Perhaps its time we joined the students in being able to poke fun at our college and ourselves.