Reaching Out to Brands on Social Media is Easy (Actually Reaching Them, Not So Much)

In the course I teach in Loyola’s Emerging Media program, Strategic Communication, much of the reading and discussion centers on the emerging relationship between organizations and stakeholders (read: brands and consumers), as strategic communication increasingly moves to online, social, and mobile platforms. This shift in how organizations advertise and communicate with consumers has led to a dramatic shift in the “power” held by consumers, and their ability to make their voices heard and elicit change within an organization.

Gone are the days where customers had to be angry enough to call or write a letter in order to “speak out” against a company. Today social media allow consumers to speak directly with companies – as well as other consumers – when they feel they have been wronged. In fact, it may seem that a day does not go by when a story like this of an angry consumer engaging with a brand on social media does not pop up somewhere, with a predictable tale: consumer complains to brand, brand apologizes or offers compensation.

In fact, best practices for public relations professionals often include responding to ALL social media complaints. Moreover, the web is littered with advertising and marketing articles which urge organizations not to ignore negative online feedback from stakeholders, describing a variety of ills that can follow. The range of “success” stories of those complaining to an organization on social media and receiving a thorough and attentive response can further skew the perception that one’s social media voice will be heard loudly and clearly when aimed at an offending organization. In fact, complaining to the Internet in general can sometimes prove fruitful, as one young woman found out after she was deceived by Uber.

Sadly, the idea that the social media world allows all consumers to receive fair, timely, and responsive treatment is not quite accurate. Not even close. And perhaps we should not expect it to be. While “best practices” may be for PR professionals to respond to every negative tweet aimed at their brand (see Digiorno’s response to their faux pas), the truth is there are too many bad things being said, and too many brands on social media unprepared (or unwilling) to make this effort.

Two recent incidents help illustrate this truth. Some time ago when a certain Ravens running back was the top news story across a range of media outlets, bringing to light other active NFL players with ongoing domestic violence cases, I came across this advertisement for EA Sports’ MADDEN franchise. Again. I had seen it before, but somehow, the dominant message of the campaign seemed different.

This time, it was more difficult to ignore how violence was being portrayed in the ad – as something normal men did. Add to this your (typical) sexualization of women while using them primarily as decoration in the ad, while the main female character was treated as a possession to be lost, and I grew more uncomfortable with the ad – especially with its connection to the NFL.

I wanted to learn more about this campaign and see how deeply it ran with topics of violence or sexualizing women. After browsing the game site, I noticed they had a link where I could “challenge” my friends. Clicking on that button brought up a Twitter window with a prewritten tweet, which included the first line of the ad, “Madden Season is the reason my hand touched your face”. So, they were encouraging me to tell me friends I would hit them in the face. This was just a bit too much for me, so I thought I would try to get their attention and alert them to the potential offensiveness of this part of their campaign. I made sure to use their appropriate handle and the hashtag created for the campaign.

Nothing. No response. Nada. And maybe that’s ok. I could have done much more to make a fuss online and try to get their attention, and maybe that would have garnered a response. However, this was an unfortunate reminder to me that just because you try to engage with a brand online, they are not obligated to respond. It is also possible that I was too gentle, too cordial in my tweet, and anyone monitoring the use of their handle did not feel that I asked for an explicit response.

Enter iStock. While looking for ad examples on AdWeek, I came across a multi-part banner ad that I found, well, problematic. As someone who studies, researches, and teaches advertising design, it was difficult for me to miss some alternative meanings from an ad with a half-naked, bent-over female and the words “Perfection has its price. Ours is low”. It shouldn’t be THAT easy for your ad to be used for a brothel. Further, as a father with two young kids, I am increasingly sensitive to sexualized images that pervade the media space.

A bit upset, I wanted answers. Specifically, I wanted to know whether iStock would give me the predictable line of “the ad copy means our images are perfect, and very affordable”, or whether they would admit to the purposeful polysemy (multiple meanings) of the ad, and reconsider using it in the future.
Greg Blog Post

Nothing. I tweeted a similar image again, including @AdAge and @AdWeek to see if anyone wanted to chime in on the subject, but again came up blank. I also posted this image to iStock’s Facebook page with a similar cry for an explanation. Nothing.

However, these experiences led me to an interesting realization, which I include here as the takeaway point of this post. While much research has been done and is being done to better understand how organizations can effectively manage social media interactions, no best practices exist for how stakeholders can effectively engage with brands via social media. While we may hold the perception that if one complains loudly enough using online platforms then he or she will receive a response, this does not provide a good roadmap for consumers who are looking to engage meaningfully with a brand. Indeed, one of my undergraduate students was recently a victim of a rate hike on Uber, and reached out to the brand online to no avail.

Communication researchers and practitioners should be mindful of this gap in the literature – that scholarship has perhaps focused on aiding the organization at the expense of the stakeholder. If Web 2.0 technologies and emerging media platforms are supposed to give consumers a more powerful voice, more work is needed to identify the channels, language, methods, and habits that lead to the most positive outcomes for stakeholders (not just organizations). While brands scramble to roll out new channels for consumers to speak with them including online chat platforms, dedicated Twitter “help” handles, and Facebook “help” pages, consumers find themselves in a similar scramble. In the ever-diversifying media space, consumers may feel that the growth of media channels leads to the power of their voice shrinking, as organizations seek greater control. Savvy consumers may recognize that by having a dedicated Twitter handle to deal with complaints, this shields the main brand handle from fielding “negative” comments, which may have been the goal of the tweet to begin with. By focusing efforts on the problems and needs of consumers (having their voice appropriately heard and responded to), strategic communication researchers can help improve outcomes not only for organizations, but also their stakeholders.

By Gregory Hoplamazian, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Master of Arts in Emerging Media

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Craft Breweries Tap Social Media to Promote New Beers

Fans of craft beer are always seeking the next beer offering from their favorite brewery. Whether it is in a small batch release available exclusively at the brewery or brewpub, a seasonal release that’s only produced at a certain time of year, or a one-of-a-kind hand-crafted and hand-pumped firkin, the never-ending quest to experience new and rare beers can be dizzying. As recently as ten years ago, craft beer was localized with a very small selection of regional beers represented at bars alongside the big national breweries. If you wanted something different, you had to seek it out, often ending up at a specialty bar or a brewery.

More recently, the craft beer world has exploded and is expanding almost daily. Most restaurant menus these days have at least two or three craft beer offerings, along with the standard fizzy yellow water. But for the true craft beer lover, this is not enough and the thirst for tasting something new is never fully quenched. Like so many other industries, many craft breweries have turned to social media to promote new offerings, new distribution locations, tasting events, and even new beers before they are even available.

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image004Additionally craft beer enthusiasts have formed their own sub-communities to log their suds, review their pints, compare notes with others and see what their friends are drinking. Websites such as BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com have become invaluable resources offering reviews, news and events, as well as a forum in which beer aficionados can discuss different beers and discover others.

Untappd and a handful of others have taken this phenomenon mobile and created smartphone apps that allow craft beer fans to log beers they have tasted, rate them in a very familiar social media environment, and even see which bar is currently serving their favorite beer. With so many craft beer offerings out there and an increasing number of breweries and beer venues taking to social media, the average craft beer fan has little to no excuse for not enjoying a craft brew almost anywhere they go. Cheers!

Michael Clark, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland
 

 

 

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What’s up with Facebook’s Acquisition of WhatsApp

WhatsApp Messenger
WhatsApp Messenger

As has been the topic of much conversation both on and offline for sometime, Facebook recently announced its acquisition of the popular cross-platform mobile messaging app WhatsApp. The knowledge of this piece of information even helped me propel my team to victory at Trivia one night, at least for one round. Well, actually most other teams got this question correct, but this comes as no surprise as this acquisition has been making headlines for a long time. However, why has it? And more importantly, why should we care?

With WhatsApp, smartphone and tablet users (with an Internet connection) can exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. This means that even users across countries and continents can essentially “text.” Using Facebook’s mobile application, however, users can pretty much already do this using the message tab. Stripped down, WhatsApp allows users the ability to directly connect with one another, anytime and anywhere, without all the extra fluff. You would think that Facebook would see WhatsApp as a competitor for a feature it already offers in its own package. The Financial Times even believes WhatsApp “has done to SMS on mobile phones what Skype did to international calling on landlines.” On Facebook’s behalf then, why try to beat the competition, when you can just buy them instead? Although, this strategy isn’t always successful as evidenced by Facebook’s recent failed attempt to try and purchase Snapchat.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger

What does this acquisition mean for users though? I ask this question as I recently experienced Facebook blocking a phrase I tried messaging to a friend of mine. While the phrase was not used with malicious intent, Facebook did not agree. With the current net-neutrality issues, the Comcast/Time Warner buyout, and debate over who controls what content is allowed to be posted online, Facebook seems headed for a potential social media monopoly. While things may seem okay for now, if in the future the FCC dictates that these types of organizations need to take responsibility for the content that is posted to them, we need to be aware that there may just one big brother overseeing all our interactions across platforms. With a monopoly on social media, then who is to say whose freedom of speech is safe?

Katherine Winslow, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland
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Should Apple Build Android Phones?

image002I read an article in Engadget that talks about Steve Wozniak’s suggestion that Apple should build Android Phones. When I first read it, I was not surprised that the famous Wozniak would suggest this during an interview, as in reality, this is something that’s possible. But then it got me thinking, how possible is this? Will the Apple of today listen to one of the founders? I doubt Wozniak’s suggestion would even reach the desk of an executive for approval. As some of you might know, Steve Wozniak, along with Steve Jobs, founded the company we know as Apple Computer Inc. Wozniak decided to split ways with Apple to pursue his own personal goals.

Apple is actually in a position where it can build Android phones, but I highly doubt they will ever do such a thing. Android is an open source OS, meaning any manufacturer can take the operating system, modify it, then release it. Manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, HTC, and former Motorola Mobility all had their own version of Android. If Apple were to put its hands in the cookie jar, it would create the phone but still in some form of its familiar image. The possibility is there, but would Apple really use its competitor’s OS, even though it is an open source program? And how about the hardware?  As we all know, Apple puts a lot of effort into the design of its mobile devices, so one might think that combining Apple hardware with Android OS would create a super smartphone. If only the two companies weren’t such bitter rivals. So in a way, Apple would be hurting its iOS by boosting Android’s market share.

Although Wozniak is an important figure in the creation of Apple, his unorthodox approach to software is something that current Apple Inc. would most likely not approve. If Apple were to build Android phones, it would be put into a situation where a partnership with Google would be inevitable. This is something I believe the two companies would try to avoid, so I don’t see Wozniak’s suggestion coming to life in this universe. But you never know…

Giancarlo Arias, Graduate Student 
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland                           
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Writing About (Web) Writing

Dena Lorenzi PhotoAs marketing professionals, it is important to understand the fundamentals of web writing so that we can make our clients’ websites more usable, popular, and profitable. The web is a publishing medium. The content a company posts on its website is the message. Great content meets users’ needs and supports key business objectives such as generating sales. Today, the average buyer completes 57% of his sales process before ever contacting a salesperson. As part of his due diligence, a buyer will often browse a company’s website.

Different media require different types of writing. Writing for the web is fundamentally different from writing for print. Online information needs to be structured differently than printed material. Web users rarely read entire pages word-for-word. Typical visitors “only read 20% of the words on a web page”. Reading online is uncomfortable. “Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25% slower than reading from printed matter.” Web users scan pages, pick out key words and phrases, read in quick, short bursts, and are task oriented. To write good web copy, you need to know your audience, goal, and product.

Effective web writing involves having the right content written in the right style and formatted for efficient scanning. Website copy should be clear, concise, and compelling. A web writer needs to keep the search engines in mind, while avoiding keyword stuffing. The September 2013 “Hummingbird” update to the Google search engine focuses on natural language rather than on keywords. Google particularly likes the following content types:
• interviews,
• lists,
• resource centers,
• social content,
• surveys,
• revisions/updates,
• reviews,
• news,
• stories,
• and pricing information.
Notice how I used a list? Ideally, writers need to create web pages that are structured for both search engines and human visitors.

Finally, keep in mind that in order to be a good web writer, you need to expand your definition of “text” beyond merely copy to include visual design as well. Mike Rundle’s article on the basics of website design is a good place to start. With tailored, high-quality content and good visual design, a website will receive more return links, social shares, and higher search rankings. Effective web writing and design differentiates.

Dena A. Lorenzi, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland
Photo Credit: Tina Mav
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U.S. Navy Firefighters Turning into (Actual) Robots?

Navy RobotPotential recruits to the U.S. Navy might soon look a bit different. The Navy wants to use robots as firefighters. These robots would take the place of sailors fighting fires on carriers and other ships. The bots are essentially human in form and are capable of recognizing flames, opening doors, climbing ladders, and carrying supplies.

However, there will be a person standing nearby giving the robot voice and hand commands. The robots will even have an English-recognition system that allows them to interpret these commands, as officials say firefighting requires a lot of teamwork and following orders is crucial. This summer these bots will be put to the test on a ship for the first time. In Mobile Bay, Alabama in August 2014, the ex-USS Shadwell is going to be set on fire and the robots will go into action. If everything works out, then in just a few years the bots could work as full-time firefighters in the Navy, thus saving lives and limiting the number of dangerous situations sailors are put into.

While replacing humans with robots sounds like a great idea, there are a few drawbacks to consider. Just ONE firefighting robot costs about one million dollars to build. The price could decrease if the Navy is able to finalize a prototype and use mass production, but either way it would still be very costly. And surely the bots will need some sort of maintenance over time, which will cost more money. Is a couple million dollars’ investment in these bots really worth it? Either way, it will be interesting to see how the firefighting robots fare in the organized testing fire in August and what the future will be for these humanoids.

Nicole Krusen, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland

 

 
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Is Social Media Eroding Our Speech Rights?

From a young age, we have been taught to think before we speak. It’s the moral of a story written in Aesop’s Fables, a collection of tales parents tell their children. The lesson seems simple: if you don’t think before you speak, you may regret what you say. But, even this easy lesson is hard to teach. And now, not only do we need to remember to think before we speak, we need to remember to think before we tweet, or we can suffer serious consequences.

Last fall, Home Depot came under fire for a tweet sent out on the company’s official twitter account. The tweet was part of a college game day promotion on ESPN. The picture was of two African-American drummers with a person in a gorilla mask sitting in the middle. The tweet read, “Which drummer is not like the others?”

Mistake Erodes Our RightsHome Depot immediately removed the tweet, apologized for it and fired the employee and outside agency responsible.

In this case, there is no question whether or not Home Depot had a right to fire the person who sent the tweet. It was posted on the company’s account and was considered racist. The employee obviously did not think before tweeting—and as a result, the person was out of job. That is a big price to pay for a careless 140 characters.

This isn’t the first time a company has fired someone for posting inappropriate content on social media. But unlike the Home Depot incident, the firing isn’t always justified. Mashable put together a list of 11 people who lost their jobs over social media faux pas. It included a teacher who was asked to resign after she posted pictures of herself drinking on vacation on her personal Facebook page and a 22-year-old tweeting negative comments about a new job offer.

What happened to our so-called freedom of speech in those cases? Americans used to have a right to communicate their opinions or beliefs and were protected by the First Amendment from legal repercussions. So, the question we need to ask is: Does a company have a right to fire someone because of something they say on their personal Facebook page or twitter account?

I believe the answer is no. While I do think people need to be respectful, I also think they have a right to voice their opinions and beliefs, even if their employers don’t like them. They should be allowed to do so without worrying about their jobs. It is very nice that the First Amendment protects us against the government punishing us for speech it doesn’t like. But what good does that do if your employer can survey anything you post anywhere and fire you for posts the employer doesn’t like. That would have a real chilling effect on speech.

It’s clear not all organizations agree with me. But right now, fairly or unfairly, we need to think before we tweet.

Aliza Friedlander, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland
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