Saving yourself from the social immune system

It’s often said that any press is good press, that any attention you get is ultimately to your benefit, that it doesn’t matter what’s written about you “as long as they spell the name right”. Recent advertising campaigns would seem to validate that some portions of the business community believe this to be true, from a sales pitch saying, “Let’s skip the foreplay and get in bed together” to a startup creating a fake school shooting message to promote itself.

In the old days of PR, perhaps this might have been true, when we didn’t have the institutional memory of Google and social networks. Mentioning a brand that had done something in poor taste might evoke a pithy comment from a colleague at the water cooler or a fellow shopper in line, but otherwise there was no significant long-term impact. Today, our social networks and our search networks behave like a social immune system, constantly resurfacing and reminding us of bad behavior (especially repeated bad behavior).

Google+ Ripples

When we behave badly, when we execute campaigns that are objectionable, insensitive, or offensive, we trigger the social immune system to remember us and identify us to our audiences as something they don’t want in their view of the world. With the ever-increasing inclusion of social results in organic search results, our bad behavior can quickly eclipse anything else a searcher might find about us – and even mentioning the brand name can trigger new re-shares of previous bad behavior, reinforcing negative perceptions and adding even more credibility to earned media that’s critical of the brand.

Setting constraints, setting boundaries on your creative efforts is one of the most important things you can do to avoid triggering the social immune system. One of the simplest exercises you can do with a campaign to avoid causing significant brand damage is to have a focus group review it. This doesn’t need to be a formal, paid focus group, either – simply sending it around to some old college friends or sharing it privately with a few neighbors is often enough to elicit doubts or negative reactions to a badly executed campaign. That in turn should be enough of a warning sign that you need to go back to the drawing board and create something more positive, smarter, or more aligned with how you want your brand to be perceived and talked about.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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