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That Icky Feeling: Social Media Done Wrong

By Sander Biehn | Feb 1, 2014

Why is it we applaud a company loudly when they tweet something clever just at the right time during the Super bowl and lambast another for trying to honor the people who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks? In the end aren’t all companies self-serving emotionless vehicles to sell more goods and services?

Aren’t businesses risk-adverse anyway? Why would they even dare to participate in social networks and risk tarnishing their reputations? It is hard to understand taking the risk of being wrong. Especially when it is so hard to know what constitutes good social interaction versus bad.

Why can one company get away with honoring the dead on the anniversary of September 11th and another take a shot in the gut for it?

Here’s why:

I have been reading “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely. In his 4th chapter he talks about two kinds of norms we as humans have with one another. The first is a social norm, the other is a market norm. Social norms are based on being a good community or family member. For example, mom cooks you a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner or you agree to help a neighbor move his heavy couch. We do these things for each other with no expectation of anything in return. Business norms, on the other hand, always have an expectation of something in return. Often they include money changing hands.

When we mistake which type of norms are expected in any given situation we elicit strong emotional responses from anyone who is observing us. When we tell a business that we need to pay late due to a family emergency or we need free service because we are in a bind, it is uncomfortable for both parties. It is the same with social norms. Try imagining the scene when you offer to pay your mom $100 for a lovely home cooked meal.

This mistaken behavior is at the heart of that icky feeling we intuit without even being aware of why we feel that way. It defines a business getting it ‘right’ or not in social media. Companies entering social media channels where social norms are expected, are particularly at risk for mixing their norms. If a business behaves like a neighbor and friend, it is just fine. But if they start collecting email addresses for a follow-up ad campaign or are perceived as being in it for money, new customers or self-glorification, the gates of hell are opened upon them.

The shaming that ensues is reminicent of the tale of Oedipus. The public rises up and tells offending brands and companies they do not understand the rules of the road. They are then thrown out of the social caste. Once removed, it is difficult to come back in and be credible again.

The question remains then, should businesses take the risk to exist in the social media world?

I think they should.

But in order to do it well, it is important that they use the people running and working for those businesses to command the messages. Putting a human face on the company is crucial for success. As long as the focus remains on those individuals, even a few mis-steps will be forgiven.

Do you agree? What other factors play into that ‘icky’ feeling you have when you see a company get it wrong on social media? What other advice can you offer to companies looking to do it right on social?

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