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The Myth of Control in New Media

One of the most common fears I focus on defeating among executives and brand managers is that in new media brands lose control by publishing content and engaging in social networks. The general sentiment is that by sharing information and creating presences within public communities that they, by the nature of democratized participation, invite negative responses in addition to potentially positive and neutral interaction. By not fully embracing the social Web, many believe that they retain a semblance of control. The idea is that if brands abstain from providing a forum for hosting potentially disparaging commentary, it will prevent it from earning an audience – in this case, an audience that can impact the business and the reputation of the brand.

However, retaining control, following the socialization of the Web, is nothing more than pure legend. While many companies retain control during the stages of defining and shaping messages, control is relinquished at the point of distribution. Once messages are published, they are at the mercy of consumers, peers, and influencers online and offline.

So I continue to ask…

If a conversation takes place online and you’re not there to hear it, did it actually happen?

Without participation, perception and sentiment are free to wander and influence those with whom it touches.

The truth is that in the era of new media, we are all brand managers, responsible for its stature, resonance, and direction. While we may not retain control, we now have the ability to shape and steer impressions, answer questions, solve problems, and engender appreciation. And in the social web, brands are now expected to humanize and connect directly with everyday denizens to convey purpose, establish goodwill, and reassure communities that their voices are heard. It’s not enough to simply give the brand a voice. People align with the people, prowess, and promises they can believe in. We are now expected to breath life and personality into our brand in order for it to earn the attention and interest of those we wish to reach.

Proactive shepherding the brand in influential communities begets positive interaction and in many cases, it extinguishes unforeseen crises before they ignite. It’s the art and science of sculpting presence. As such, many organizations are establishing a role or augmenting existing responsibilities to encompass ORM (online reputation management). As Forbes recently alluded, perhaps it’s time for a Chief Reputation Officer.

Econsultancy and BigMouthMedia published a report, Social Media and Online PR, to assist marketers embrace ORM.  The report is based on a survey of more than 1,100 companies carried out in September 2009. Respondents include client-side digital marketers and communications professionals, as well as digital and PR agencies.

Methods Used by Companies Worldwide to Minimize the Impact of Online Negative Comments About Their Brand, Products, or Services

47% – Directly engaged with publisher/blogger to rectify issues or address negative experience

33% – Attempted to improve products and services in order to reduce or eradicate negativity

24% – Encouraged others to speak more positively about us

17% – Issued and distributed press releases or comment to address issue

14% – Attempted to get offending content removed by publisher/blogger

12% – Created content to push offending results down search engine rankings

30% – None of the above

5% – Other

There are two stats that caught my attention in particular.

First, over one-third, 35%, reported that they do not embrace any of the afore mentioned response strategies to steer negative towards neutral or positive.

Second, another one-third of respondents vowed to improve products and services in order to invest in positive experiences and more effectively compete for the future.

Not surprising however, most of the other tactics were aimed at either distracting people or burying content.

Ways that Companies Worldwide use Twitter

62% – Publicizing new content

54% – Marketing channel

47% – Brand monitoring

27% – Reacting to customer service issues and inquiries

25% – Gathering customer feedback

23% – Market intelligence

14% – Sales channel

11% – Human resources

4% – Other

21% – None of the above

I once asked whether Twitter was a broadcast or conversation channel or both? According to these numbers, they appear to portray Twitter as yet another broadcast mechanism similar to the wire services that catapulted press releases into a vastness of irrelevance. We earn the relationships and define the dedicated communities and ultimately the authority and trust we deserve.

It’s encouraging, however, to see that almost half of those who participated in the survey monitor the state of their brands on Twitter. While low, 27% is a very promising representation of what will only grow in 2010, the integration of rapid response systems to issues and inquiries. Combined with the 25% currently focused on gathering customer feedback and 23% to garner market intelligence, brands will evolve and adapt from the inside out, creating more empathetic and in tune organizations that live and breathe based on the health of and emerging opportunities within their markets.

Also, please be sure to embrace a proactive form of brand asset management, securing company, product, and service brand names as well as important executives responsible for steering and growing the company. Services such as (disclosure, I advise them on services) facilitate automated username and profile acquisition and establishment across hundreds of existing social networks as well as ensuring brands are actively protected with every new network that appears.

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151 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Myth of Control in New Media”

  1. Jon Buscall says:

    Interesting post given that I blogged a piece today about my irritation at one of the UK’s social media guru’s inability to engage with me properly on Twitter!
    I’m just waiting to see if she gets back in touch.

    What concerns me (here) is your comment that Twitter is falling into a broadcast channel instead of a discussion or space to dialogue.

    If business users in particular carry on in this fashion consumers will switch off, avoiding yet another channel of pushed advertising.

  2. jeffbullas says:

    Hi Brian …Very Cool Post. If Brands participate early, fast and pro-actively, they can overwhelm negative comments and sentiment by playing fast ball. Jeff

    • briansolis says:

      Interesting way to think about it…but indeed, over time, they can not only shape perception through participation, but learn from it, thus becoming a more in-tune organization that shapes perception through change.

    • Jeff, I think it's more about the philosophy of accepting that there will always be people with negative sentiment towards your brand. I don't think you should be trying to overwhelm as much as you should be trying to have a platform and voice to respond against it.

    • This is, after all, a time when journalists feel their livelihood is under siege from the Internet.

  3. Great post. But it reminds me of one of my Grandmother's old sayings:

    “You have complete and total control of your words…until you say them.”

    I think the myth of which you speak extends further back than just the social web. Control was always an illusion.

    • briansolis says:

      Indeed. That really is the essence of the post. Social Media didn't invent conversations, yet, in some circles, I think many believe it did! Your grandmother's words are very wise.

  4. James Ball says:

    United does break guitars, and Domino’s pizza crust does taste and feel like cardboard. Can’t go back and make it not so. I would argue though, that a measure of control is exactly what new media offers.

    My own sentiment towards these and many other brand’s services or product come from the new media conversations that center around that brand’s meeting with negative sentiment head-on. Is this not a pro-active exercise in control? I love highlighting these conversations when talking to a company about social media participation. It may still be only an illusion, but this illusion and a desire to steer these types of interactions resonates with the majority of those that I speak with.

  5. One thing that I've noticed in my community building is that when the community is strong, it will stand up for you.

    A community of mine that I've built in particular seems to have created its own zero tolerance policy for negative feedback. Most any time there is a negative comment, almost instantly there are at least 5-10 people who jump in and avert some of the pressure.

    As manager of the community, I respond as quickly as possible, mostly in real time, but sometimes that just isn't possible.

    It's always nice to have that sort of support from the community. In some cases the negative feedback has been turned around before I've even gotten the chance to respond on behalf of the brand.

    Knowing this from the onset, I find it easier talking to brands that are hesitant to jump in.

    • briansolis says:

      Tommy, it is a metric for the strength and stature of the community – it's willingness to speak on your behalf. In many ways, it is representative of how social can scale without adding overhead on staff.

    • ML says:

      Tommy I don't necessarily agree. If there is a place where “newbies' are made to feel unwelcome and that simply stating a differing opinion or trying to discuss a negative opinion of something is going to make a community jump down that person's throat, they won't be back. Everyone in large corporations should know this statistic by heart – for every 1 (legit) complaint, there are 9 others who won't bother to tell you – but they won't be back and they may bad mouth to their friends.

  6. dmattcarter says:

    Astounding. It seems that 67% of brands (by my count the percentages displayed in the “Minimize the impact of negative comments) fail, to some degree, to leverage social media in it's most valuable role. Identifying issues and moving to directly address them. Some say that loyalty resulting from negative comments that have been successfully addressed can be more valuable and deeper than the loyalty of those who are always positive. Intelligently and openly addressing negative sentiment provides companies with a rare opportunity to show themselves as concerned, engaged and responsive to individual consumers needs.

    • Dmattcarter, I think thats a good point. And building on that, one could see engagement in either a positive or negative form as a success from a brand standpoint, as long as you have the mentality, tools, and resources to offer every opportunity to shape it. It takes a lot for anyone to engage with a brand, they have to be truly motivated, so as long as you are listening and willing to offer support, acknowledgment, and respect there is a lot to win, even from negative feedback.

  7. ML says:

    Brian, don't you think this is mostly relevant for large companies though? I see tons and tons of small companies who have a FB fan page (and I think users are getting very weary of fan pages in general) with just a handful of followers, they tweet, but overall aren't their efforts and resources, which are limited, better off just improving customer service to begin with? This seems more relevant to Comcast, AT&T, big companies in that league.

  8. Brian, I think this post is great, and, as always, well written. But isn't this a little bit “old news” in the social media world. I mean acknowledging that a brand no longer has control over what is being said is the first step in accepting the potential of social media. It's not exactly a very advanced insight. Maybe it just needs reiteration, and I think you do that well, but I'm looking for more…

  9. Rich Becker says:

    Hey Brian,

    While companies seem to adopt Twitter as a broadcast channel, some other studies indicate that Twitter seems to be employed by consumers and professionals as more of a conversation channel (with some link broadcasting).

    Broadcast alone tends to be more intrusive, which might be why moms prefer to follow companies on Facebook where those various groups and fan pages are a bit more in the background. Good stuff to consider.


  10. impactlearning says:

    To be honest, I was surprised by your stats that only 62% of brands use Twitter to publicize new content, and 54% as a marketing channel.

    I'd suspected that broadcast-to-participation would have followed something more akin to the old 90-9-1 rule.

    It's inspiring to note that more than a quarter of Twitter usage by companies is for customer service. I mean it is a perfect customer service framework, after all.

    Great article Brian!

    Glenn Friesen

  11. kboon says:

    Interesting ideas. As we get better (collectively) at using the social web, I think more of us (companies and individuals) will find we do have more control over our message. But the key parts are about being engaged, establishing trust and having a human face.

  12. InsuranceNick says:

    Interesting post Brian. Understanding the difference between control and influence is a good starting point for executives or managers fearful of sparking negative conversations about their brands. As you say, the conversations will happen regardless, so it's a choice between making positive (and influential) contributions based on objectives or ignoring and hoping the conversation will evaporate.

    My grandma wasn't as sharp of tongue as DJ Capobianco's but she did tell me that ignoring a small problem now can make it a big problem later. Nowhere is this more true than with online reputation managemnent.

  13. lauriecreasy says:

    Excellent post, as usual.

    Except I went to Knowem and found that you are a business advisor. Am I just so new to your blog that I didn't know this previously? Shouldn't you have a disclaimer in your post?

    When I did get to Knowem, the site trumpets coverage in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among others. Why can't I click on those links or go directly to the story? Is it that the story wasn't that great?

    If you're going to talk about building trust through social networks, maybe you should start by looking at your own work.

    • briansolis says:

      Hi Laurie, it's a good question. Perhaps they're listening. As for disclosure…You're right. I'm usually pretty good about disclosure 🙂 – I do offer them advice on how to improve their services so that the brands I with can simplify the process of securing their brand assets on the social web.

  14. Such a great post, Brian. We are still in the transitional phase but with leadership from brands like Nike, Pepsi, Coke, Ford and Starbucks, increased adoption of social media will shortly be followed by increased sophistication. My greatest concern is that brands still often make the mistake of imagining that social media can be re-purposed in the service of them. While ultimately that may be true, the mindset required for successful media strategies is that the tools should be used in the service of citizens or consumers who, using their purchasing power, goodwill and word of mouth advertising, can impact the bottom line of a brand. But as with so much in life, the “come from” is critical and too many brands are yet to internalize the shift in power from them to consumers. Yet I trust the market to correct these misunderstanding and for the brave brands to profit most from the adoption of new tools that empower consumers to dialogue with brands in a real sense for perhaps the first time. Best and, as always, thanks for your great thinking. Simon

  15. Such a great post, Brian. We are still in the transitional phase but with leadership from brands like Nike, Pepsi, Coke, Ford and Starbucks, increased adoption of social media will shortly be followed by increased sophistication. My greatest concern is that brands still often make the mistake of imagining that social media can be re-purposed in the service of them. While ultimately that may be true, the mindset required for successful media strategies is that the tools should be used in the service of citizens or consumers who, using their purchasing power, goodwill and word of mouth advertising, can impact the bottom line of a brand. But as with so much in life, the “come from” is critical and too many brands are yet to internalize the shift in power from them to consumers. Yet I trust the market to correct these misunderstanding and for the brave brands to profit most from the adoption of new tools that empower consumers to dialogue with brands in a real sense for perhaps the first time. Best and, as always, thanks for your great thinking. Simon

  16. Suzanne Vara says:


    I respectfully disagree here. As a brand you control the message you put out there but you do not control the reaction. That is the difference. As a brand develops its message for its overall branding or a branding of a campaign, they know that there will be reactions to it and that in the development process thinking of these may influence the choice of words but it does not relinquish control of the actual message to the consumer. Case in point. Taco Bell with their diet menu. They were ridiculed, and I as one of them who did so. Replacing cheese with salsa does not make a taco a diet food. This was something on their menu for a while and they they brought it to the forefront and created an entire campaign around it. They had to know that they would be faced with negativity and that could have been part of the strategy to get people talking about it as positive or negative, people will go and see for themselves. I am unaware of what their sales are however whether good or bad, they have not strayed from their message. They still hold the control of the message but not what people say about it.

    This is a topic that will continue to be analyzed and spoken about as businesses are fearful to put themselves out there. Not everyone is going to like you which is why we have competition and there are those that will be negative to your brand/company regardless of whether you engage in SM or not. Taking part and being aware of the negativity and addressing it is what social media affords a brand. You know what people are saying and can be reactive or in some cases proactive. Companies dwell on the negativity but forget about the positive that is said about a brand and their interaction. Focusing on the positive or the negative does not paint a clear picture of what social media is about and affords to a brand/company.

    Great post to get us all to think about control and how a brand will feel that they lose control once they publish or put themselves out there.

    • briansolis says:

      Suzanne, I believe we're saying the same thing. You lose control at the point of distribution, which in my mind (at least as I wrote that statement) equates to the interpretation and reaction.

  17. terryeast says:

    A company or individual create a brand around the promise of their product(s) or service(s). The social web is constantly evaluating whether the promise is being kept — a great two-way communication channel. So, in my opinion, there are three deadly sins of the social web: (1) (the Twinkie defense) not participating on the social web for lack of knowledge; (2) (control freaks) attempt to employ Web 1.0 tactics using the social web — it's just a new tool; and, (3) (the cardinal, unforgivable sin) Using the social web in the collaborative manner it is intended, only to abandon the community once the ultimate objective is achieved. The third cardinal sin is exemplified by the political machines; they have taught us how effective the social web can be, and, permitted us to see how communities react to betrayal.

  18. Kelsey says:

    Brian, I actually just stumbled upon your blog and read this post as part of an assignment for a “Social Media in Public Relations” class that I am taking. We are currently reading a book entitled “Groundswell- winning in a world transformed by social technologies” and I think that you would do very well to read the book. The term groundswell is defined as “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other; rather than from traditional institutions like corporations”. The book then goes on to say that managers of companies have extreme difficulties excepting this and reading negative reviews about their products/services. There is no way of stopping the groundswell, but if you understand it, you can thrive in it. For example, Victoria Secret has over 250,000 friends on MySpace, and some companies have created their own social networks. Chapter 2 of Groundswell is all about various technologies people are using to come together to rate products, talk about them, “diss” them, etc. but also how doing this threatens the “institutional power” of your business, but also what you can do with these technologies to benefit yourself.

  19. Marcio_Saito says:

    I'm new here. Brian, thanks for the great article.

    I agree with the argument of control to the “point of distribution”, but I would add that with the New Media, because of its interactive nature, that relinquishing of control is intrinsically broader than in uni-directional/broadcast channels.

    Old Media allows for maintenance of some control over the message itself after distribution (but not the reaction, as already mentioned). In New Media, we can shape it, but relinquish control over the message itself at the point of distribution – we do not control even the message the audience receives.

    The difference may be subtle, but is a fundamental shift as managing a brand or a message goes from influencing to listening and resonating with customers.

  20. Jeff Cotrupe says:

    Brian: outstanding. Focus on Twitter for a moment if I may: What do you (and others) think of Twitter auto-follow services? I once worked with a client that refused to have a Twitter site because the CEO was incensed to find that his company was following porn sites. His “web team” used an auto-follow service and casually watched follower count but never took a minute to see who was following them or vice versa…forget about engaging in anything resembling a fruitful business dialogue with any of them. I, too, use an auto-follow service more as a backup (to avoid being rude to new followers if I don’t have time to follow back), but in truth I spend the incredibly brief moments it takes to actually look at who’s following and find a way to engage.

  21. Andy says:

    This is a great post – a company never did have a lot of control – just think Andy Warhol and Campbells Soup, but the super fast dissemination of content is incredible in today’s world, and the idea that you can control anything other than what is on your webpage is an illusion. You can control a lot of it, by being a good company who cares about their customers and employees – then you can count on beneficial press.

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