If we agree that credibility and familiarity of both source and content are prerequisites for any communication to be effective, we must always remember to be very careful when we tend to enhance and exalt social media as we often do when we write, make presentations or lecture.
Only a few days ago in Milano 150 young Italian marketing and public relations professionals packed a conference room for a full day organized by Digital PR -a Hill&Knowlton (Wpp) firm which is doing very well in Italy and now expanding to other European markets and is led by Paolo Guadagni– while various social media experts presented case after case practical applications of social media:
°from Gabetti’s successful marketing presence in Second Life (Gabetti is an Italian real estate company) which in two months has cost them 50 thousand euros and has brought in a couple of million of US dollars in actual sales;
°to Case New Holland’s (one of the world’s largest land moving machinery manufacturers) careful monitoring of the blogosphere to identify how farmers use the Internet and converse in newsgroups, forums and blogs;
°to Fiat’s early buzz campaign to launch the Bravo model through a cooperative blog which involved the whole design, marketing and manufacturing team six months before market launch.
By the way, it is interesting to note how all case presenters insisted that, even before any other tangible benefit, these social media exercises all had a forceful impact on organizational and internal processes, not dissimilarly to what is happening in many organizations who have decided to report to stakeholders their corporate responsibility activities…
Hill & Knowlton’s European head of the social media practice, Joel Cere, at a certain point of his presentation claimed that:
‘astroturfing is a no-go, because in social media this practice doesn’t work and you are going to get caught’ and then went on to cite the Edelman Wal Mart case to prove it.
I strongly disagree (apart from the fact that H&K being a direct competitor of Edelman might have suggested the good taste of using other examples…and there many to choose from…).
Astroturfing, which is in no way a social-media-driven invention -as well as the use of front organizations and other opaque adoption of other identities to hide one’s own to induce publics in accepting contents apparently from more credible and authoritative sources- is a practice which dates back to the very origins of public relations.
Of course it is true that social media largely amplifies the possibility of being found out but, at the same time, it also greatly increases the chances of exercising such practice at little if any cost.
This implies that we will never really know how many are being implemented until someone finds out, and, even then, we have no certainty that those who have in the meantime been improperly influenced will have been made aware that it was an astroturfing exercise.
Thus, our credibility is seriously in question when we use the argument that ‘it doesn’t work’.
How do we know?
It is much better to say that these practices are no-go’s because they are basically misleading and contrary to ethical practices of both organizations and the profession, rather than that they don’t work…because we have no way to prove our statement.
Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to add that if you do get found out, then it is also counterproductive.