Part six in an ongoing series about a small business start-up trying to succeed on the web without relying on traffic from the major search engines.

One of the biggest concerns I've heard from businesses that are considering exploring social media and viral marketing is the fear of negative feedback. Companies like Sony and Walmart have been absolutely slammed for setting up fake blogs in the hopes of marketing via contrived social media. In fact, marketing blogs are almost continually abuzz with the latest news of corporate missteps and public backlash. Thus, it can be more than a little terrifying to wade into the waters of social media.

The bad news is, no matter how carefully you tread, no matter how genuine your involvement is, you may find yourself getting slammed by the very audience you are trying to reach. The good news is, if you go into a social media campaign with honest interest in engaging in a dialogue with your customers, you'll be able to weather the storm.

How do I know this? Well, as with most projects I've run for the purpose of educating small business owners, my work with Bento Yum delivered the perfect lesson on social media rotten egg throwing 101.

When Social Media Attacks

In part five of this series, I explained the need to enter social media marketing with the intention of giving rather than selling. I outlined the methods you'll need to use to find the right communities and the effort involved in creating something of value for the community.

I spent the first five weeks of this project carefully working toward that goal. I'd made 45 bentos with an average investment of about 20 minutes each. That's about 15 hours total. I'd also spent a full weekend building the Bento Yum site and had made 72 blog posts sharing bentos, tips, picture tutorials etc. I'd logged another 30-45 minutes each day browsing through bento communities to offer comments, share advice and ask questions. In other words, I had worked darn hard to become a true member of the community. Partly because that's the way to play the game, but also because I'd found bento to be genuinely interesting. (Another reason why I encourage people to go niche and play off their interests when they start an online business. This stuff takes way too much time to fake.)

Unfortunately, I logged onto my favorite bento community during that fifth week to find a scathing post attacking me for my involvement in the community because of my position as a marketer. Interestingly, the post came from one of the most prominent members of the community. A woman who also happens to run what is arguably the most popular bento blog online.

The post read, in part:

I'm stunned and saddened to make this post. How would you feel if you found out that one of us had created a whole business based on mining this community for marketing purposes, trying to glide under our spammer radar, and was bragging about to other marketers? It's like watching a teen movie where the jock pretends to make friends with the shy girl on a secret bet with his buddies, and gloats about how he's pulling one over on the gullible target.

They're articles that new bentolunch member thejenn1 wrote about setting up the Bento Yum website as an experiment in "social media marketing" with the main purpose of selling her bento box starter kits. It's described as an experiment in marketing to online communities from within, participating in the community with the main purpose of sales while trying to slide under the community's spammer radar. I don't know that I've ever seen a more condescending and disingenuous approach toward this community.

She will be writing a series of articles detailing her "social media marketing" experiment as it happens on her marketing website, so we can see how she describes marketing to us under the guise of community involvement.

She went on to outline several accusations about what I'd been doing in the community. She claimed that I'd been posting inventory updates, that I continuously pushed our products and that I had censored her comments on my own bento site to keep people from finding her site.

As you can imagine, a commenting storm of epic proportions ensued. I was blasted left and right by those who claimed they had spotted me as a "fake" from the moment I made my first post. (Impressive since I'd been making and posting bentos for two weeks before the blog idea ever entered my mind.) More accusations flew and as I scrolled through the thread I found myself thinking that my time in this community was probably drawing to a close.

Unfortunately, many of the things she claimed I was doing simply weren't true. The inventory updates she referred to were posted only on the Bento Yum site. Since we were using WordPress as our content management system and since new bento kits were being made available fairly often, Abigail was making a blog post with set details and then manually adding it to our sales page. That made it easy for Bento Yum visitors to spot new sets as they came available and kept our sales messages within the confines of our own site. Unfortunately, the way the post to the community was worded, it looked as though we were making these posts to bento communities.

The posts "pushing our product" had been limited to a post asking if people would be interested in bento starter kits back when I'd received my first shipment of supplies from Abigail. I'd posted them to the community in my excitement to get started with bento long before the idea of a bento blog or business had ever entered my mind. A subsequent post was made letting people know that the site was open for business and asking to be added to the community's guide to online bento stores. Unfortunately, when people read the comments in this new thread and looked back, they were viewing the past with a new slant and it became easy to assume that the entire thing had been a setup. I can only imagine that they also recalled seeing the numerous posts from community members that had bought our products (and shared that information in their own posts) and assumed those posts had come from me as well.

The most frustrating accusation came in the mention that I was deleting any links to other sites on my own blog. What had actually happened was that the poster had come to my blog and dropped links to her own site and content in my comments area. When I saw them, I dropped her an email to point out that people tend to give more credibility to links that appear within the blog posts and to suggest that she email me directly if she spotted a good fit so that I could make a post with links to her content. She had also made another comment pointing out a broken link from my site to hers. I made the correction and then deleted the comment.

The entire post left me wondering if I was dealing with a genuine misunderstanding or an absolutely brilliant social media attack orchestrated by a direct competitor.

The post and the subsequent comments also served as a powerful example of mob mentality. All it took was one post by a respected member of the community to turn things into a tidal wave of anger that threatened to roll a tsunami over the business.

Social Media Lesson #2847 - NEVER Respond Immediately When Things Get Sour

It was obvious a response was needed and needed fast. Unfortunately, the wave of panic (and anger) that initially surged through me caused me to break my number one social media and online reputation management rules; never respond immediately. It is absolutely essential that you take time to calm down and think things carefully through before responding in these situations.

That's tough in situations like this though. Especially when every screen refresh brings along a fresh comment and a fresh set of things you feel you simply must address. Thus, I gave in to temptation and began composing my response immediately.

I tried to address all of the accusations of the original post. I tried to manage my level of anger and I tried to rationally point out the hypocrisy that was taking place. When I look back now, I wish I'd waited another hour or two. I can clearly read the anger in my response. I can see the defensiveness. While I did make valid points and managed to begin to shift the conversation back onto more rational grounds, I also added fuel to the fire for many of my detractors.

Social Media Lesson #5482 - No Matter How Valid It May Be, Do NOT Attack Your Attacker

My second biggest mistake was to go past mounting a defense and to go on the attack against the original poster. While it was easy enough to assume that her post had been made with the exact goal of shutting down the competition, the fact remains that I had no way of knowing what her intentions were. In fact, more than a month later, I still have no idea what her intentions were. It doesn't matter though. Just as lawyering up too soon makes you look guilty, launching a counter-attack almost always backfires.

Social Media Lesson #3728 - If There's ANYTHING You Are Guilty of, Admit it Immediately

My third biggest mistake was in failing to properly address the charge that I was "experimenting" on the community. As you can imagine, I was so busy defending myself that I failed to step back and view things from the community's perspective. (This is why you should wait to respond.)

As the day progressed and I watched more comments roll in I realized that people weren't really mad at me for running a business. In fact, they weren't really mad at all. The reality was that they felt hurt and betrayed. Many of them had been regular commenters on my posts on the community and I'd been regular commenters on theirs. They had viewed me as part of the community (and I genuinely was) but this new post and the spin it had taken had left them feeling like it was all a big scam. In their mind, I was no longer "thejenn1" posting the bentos I made each night for my husband. Instead, I may well have been a huge marketing agency that hired out bento production and had an intern plugging away to make all those "nice job!" comments.

It seemed strangely ironic that the poster has mentioned those teen movies where a jock makes a bet about turning the nerdy chick into prom queen. Everyone knows that those movies end with the jock falling madly in love with the nerd and the nerd feeling angry and betrayed when the bet is revealed. Thankfully, I've watched enough of those movies to know that once the jock demonstrated the genuineness of his love and makes a sincere apology, the now gorgeous girl accepts him back with open arms.

With that new perspective, I was able to look back through the comments and to realize where much of the anger and accusations were coming from. It was then that I was able to honestly view things from the community's perspective and to realize that an apology was owed. It wasn't my participation in the community that needed an apology, but rather the fact that many of them felt like guinea pigs because of this very article series. I made another comment to the thread that acknowledged my understanding of their feeling of betrayal and making it quite clear that it was never my intention to dupe anyone.

I honestly hadn't been trying to get away with anything. A few simple clicks by any curious individual would have led them straight to this series. What I failed to realize is that while writing about marketing tactics and making case studies out of things I'd be doing anyway is par for the course to me, it's not an every day occurrence for non-marketers. It was a powerful lesson in just how lightly marketers must tread in the realm of social media, even if they are genuinely interested in being part of the community.

Things Calm Down

Not long after I made my mea culpa post, the tide started to shift. In fact, many posters began coming to my defense both in the comments of the original thread and via my private email. Within a few days, the original poster issued a "perhaps this wasn't the best way to handle this" style post. Just as quickly as the storm popped up, it calmed down and I saw the sun start peeking through the virtual clouds. In fact, in the next installment, I'll share the unexpected upside of this seemingly disastrous incident.

What this incident really showed was that no matter how prepared you think you are for the social media world, you're likely to stumble at some point. Growing a thick skin and being prepared to respond quickly, yet rationally can go a long way toward helping you to pick up the pieces of your campaign. It also highlights just how essential it is to truly and sincerely join the community. Had I actually been a large marketing firm "playing" the role of a poster, I wouldn't have had a chance in Hades of recovering from this thread. However, due to the time and effort I had invested into becoming a genuine member of the community, it didn't take long for calmer heads to prevail and for folks to realize that the thread was based more on misunderstanding than on malicious marketing intent.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

July 31, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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