News and commentary about yesterday’s tragic events in Boston are dominating my feed on Facebook, but there, in the middle of it all, I was appalled to see a pathetic, contextual ad for the Zoosk dating site, with a montage of all the smiling hotties that were dying to meet me.
Hey Facebook. Here’s a radical idea: Why don’t you have your engineers write a few algorithms to make decisions on what contextual advertising not to include in a user’s feed?
Are we no longer permitted to mourn for a few hours? We’re targets for advertisers. I get that. But have we been reduced to just that and nothing more? Is the “social” in social network a lie?
In February, 2011, Kenneth Cole became the target of relentless attacks for his insensitivity when he suggested that the uprising in Egypt was in response to Kenneth Cole’s new spring clothing line.
Facebook is no different in its insensitivity to the mood of the people. I understand that the company can’t simply stop pushing out advertising every time there is a tragedy, especially as they seem to occur almost daily, but seriously, can’t they use technology to dial back a little when they see a predominantly somber and reflective sentiment among users?
Contextual ads are almost always annoying, but often cross the line into distasteful or offensive. Not long after the one-year anniversary of the passing of his grandfather, my son was presented with this ad on his Facebook page:
Apparently, my son overlooked this caring gesture while his grandfather was still alive. And his grandfather, was, like his father, Jewish, a religion which generally sees cremation as a desecration of the human body. All of the facts concerned with the passing of his grandfather were disclosed often in multiple Facebook feeds and could easily have been used by Facebook to determine that this ad was offensive and poorly timed, had they cared.
Facebook is not doing advertisers any favors by pushing the wrong content on unreceptive users. I have no need for Zoosk. I am in a committed relationship and not shopping around. But I will tell you this. Seeing the company’s idiotic ad in my feed while I contemplated with sadness the week’s events has caused me to think even more poorly of the company than I ever did.
And I certainly don’t consider Facebook the new agora, reserved for scholarly discussions on lofty topics, but it’s starting to look more like an inner city bus stop.
With Instagram under fire for changes to its TOS (Terms of Service), I thought it would be useful to review The 10 Laws of Social Networking Terms of Service:
- Your content is not yours. Social networks and media outlets own more of your content than they ever have before, and always have, but you just didn’t realize it.
- A TOS will, by design, compel users to surrender their rights. Users will nearly always be asked to give away some or all rights to their content. Most sites are free and a TOS is basically a trade for use of your name, info and meta data in exchange for use of the site.
- Most people do not read the TOS before agreeing to it. Only 1% of people read the TOS before signing up for a site. “I have read and agree to the Terms” is the biggest lie on the web. - Terms of Service; Didn’t Read.
- Only a small percentage of people who actually read a TOS understand it. Only 1% of the people who read a TOS, understand it. This small group then posts alerts on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, getting everyone else riled up.
- The origin of the TOS dictates its incomprehensibility. The reason the TOS sounds like a complicated legal contract is that it is one. The TOS is almost always drafted by lawyers, and attempts at writing “plain English” TOS’s are sometimes discouraged.
- The TOS will change faster than the rate at which people can comprehend and adapt to previous versions.(Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation is having trouble keeping up with changing TOS’s.)
- The TOS will upset end users. With every new or updated TOS, there is something in that will upset people once it’s brought to their attention.
- The TOS is a business enabler. Without certain rights, social networks can’t make use of your valuable data and therefore cannot make money on contextual advertising. Many would cease to exist.
- Every TOS will increase in complexity over time. The TOS is usually developed in response to both projected situations and new ones as they arise. In general, the TOS will, over time, take away user rights rather than granting new ones, and grow in length and complexity
- New terms in a TOS may create more problems than they solve. With the increasing sophistication and complexity of the social web and the emerging law in the space, many issues of copyright, privacy, etc. are unresolved from a legal standpoint, so even the most well-intentioned TOS might not properly address them. Pinterest discovered this when it updated its TOS and clouded the waters of copyright ownership.
One of my Facebook friends recently posted, “Unfriending the skeevy guy old enough to be my dad* who comments on all my updates.”
My initial reaction was, “And just how did this person get access to your status updates in the first place?” Seriously. The offended individual either friended or accepted a friend request from this person who was now being described in a most uncharitable way. They voluntarily admitted this person into their online life. Why would you invite someone into your circle of friends (whether “real” or virtual) and then expect them not to interact? Isn’t that the point of social networking?
As an un-skeevy guy old enough to be the father of many people, and the actual father of two children, I admit I am cautious about commenting or clicking “Like” when a much younger Facebook friend posts something, no matter the subject matter, for fear of having my motives questioned, or concerns about invading a personal space where I don’t belong. But isn’t that why people are on social networks? To communicate?
Marshall McLuhan said “Publication is self-invasion of privacy,” a quote I use a little too often because it so perfectly defines one of the major issues with social networking. Similarly, I would say something like, “Indiscriminate friending is the deliberate removal of social boundaries.” Not quite as erudite as McLuhan, but I think you get the point.
* For the record I am not the skeevy old guy referenced in this update.
The first section of Tim Calkins’ Defending Your Brand is titled An Important Note, which admonishes the reader:
There are times when this book will make you uncomfortable. You may read about certain tactics and think, “That is so wrong. I can’t believe someone would do that.” Some of the approaches and strategies really push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior. If you are an attorney this book will certainly make you feel unsettled.
If you read this blog, or you’ve heard me speak, then you know I advocate a strict code of marketing ethics, and I don’t believe companies need to behave unethically in order to compete, so I was initially wary of the book. As it turns out, Defending Your Brand is a straight-talking analysis of competitive threats, and the responses, from the mild to the wild, a business may make in order to regain control of its marketplace and defend its brand. Some of these are indeed sketchy, and may skirt legal and ethical boundaries, but for the most part the book offers sound, rational advice consistent with good business practices and effective marketing.
Almost from the start, one sees that the very process of defending a brand, by definition, puts a company on the offense. In the book’s introduction, Calkins uses the example of dessert topping makers Reddi-wip and Cool Whip, and how Reddi-wip responded when Cool Whip announced its first product in a can. Reddi-wip’s response included an advertising campaign in which the company compared the products directly and made the case that its ingredients were more natural than those found in Cool Whip, challenging the newcomer head-on.
This book, though, has much more substance than a canned dessert topping. It is clearly a business book, using both actual and hypothetical case studies, detailed defense strategies and an understanding of a business’s operational framework. Anyone with a solid foundation in business management can apply these principles when faced with a competitive threat. I found the section The Financial Challenge one of the most interesting of all, as it connects competitive behavior with the financial realities of running a business. If a perceived threat won’t have a financial impact on your company, is it even worth responding to? And if it does, what resources do you have at your disposal and how do you apply them?
Some of the strategies proposed include outspending your opponent, introducing new products, and creating operational barriers to the success of competitors. For the larger company, especially when faced with a serious financial threat, strategies include but are not limited to filing a formal complaint, securing government support or even advocating enactment of government regulations that favor the company and or its products. As I said, some of these strategies may raise ethical issues.
It seems in competitive response that no strategy or tactic is completely out of bounds. Calkins cites the example of GlaxoSmithKline which responded to competitive products in the HIV drug market with an ad that featured shark-infested waters and stated, “Don’t take a chance. Stick with the HIV medicine that’s working for you.” Another ad recommended patients ask their physician, “Will the HIV medicine make my skin or eyes turn yellow?” which was a common side effect of competing medications.
The book brought to mind a situation I found myself in years ago when I was CEO of a small, privately held company that manufactured computer hardware. Owing to our strategic location in Silicon Valley, we had superior engineering talent and a startup culture that allowed us to be first to market with many new technologies. We were faced however, with a competitor that was publicly held, and, we learned, would call into question our company’s stability by comparing their publicly filed financial statements to an extrapolated balance sheet on my company to scare people into believing we lacked long-term viability and funding.
A good finance person could easily look at our markets, products, advertising budget, etc. and make some fairly accurate guesses about our financial situation. But I was surprised that they were presenting people with a purported balance sheet for my company. We could not compete on a financial basis, so, over time, we learned to compete by offering a superior warranty, more personalized service, and liberal trial terms for companies wishing to evaluate our products.
Had I had access to Defending Your Brand, I would have learned a number of other response strategies. Defending Your Brand offers dozens of clearly articulated, completely legal and ethical strategies for defending your brand, and devotes a portion of the book to a discussion of evaluating and mitigating legal and ethical concerns. Given that the right competitive threat has the potential to seriously damage or completely destroy a company, it’s important to consider every viable response, and Calkins does an outstanding job of outlining many, many more responses than I would have come up with on my own, giving clear instructions on identifying and implementing these strategies.
As a communicator, your job is to get people to listen to, comprehend, validate and repeat your company’s story. In order to rise above the noise and be heard, you need a pitch that helps people understand how your company, and its products and services, relate to them on a personal level.
If your job is to communicate the value of the iPhone or Coca-Cola, or any top brand with universally recognized benefits, telling a globally relevant story is a lot easier than it is if your product is twisty ties for bread bags or lug nuts for automobiles.
The key is to move your story to the top of what I call the relevance stack. There are many examples of companies that have done this successfully. Here are a couple from my own experience:
- When Seagate wanted to expand its brand identity from that of a computer hardware manufacturer to a “lifestyle” brand, the company worked with Silicon Valley PR agency Eastwick Communications to develop a more relevant, universally appealing story of how the company’s products positively affect the everyday lives of consumers. They told a story not of “speeds and feeds,” but of how Seagate storage was at the heart of so many popular consumer products. The company secured big PR hits with a Forbes cover story and product placement of its pink external hard drives on the Ellen Degeneres show.
- Darryl Moon, CEO of Orriant, a leading company in corporate wellness, leveraged his personal platform on personal and corporate accountability for curbing healthcare costs to obtain coverage from Bloomberg and elsewhere. While many companies shy away from taking a public position on complex and controversial issues, Moon is able to rise above the noise and be heard with his clearly articulated perspective backed by facts and experience. By connecting what Orriant does with arguments for and against Obamacare, Moon has moved Orriant up the relevance stack.
I attended a PR roundtable where an editor from Businessweek told us that he had been given the guidance that they would not be doing any more “tech” stories but would instead try to tell to lifestyle stories that would be more relevant and engaging to readers.
Can you tell a story of how your company’s products and services are relevant to a broad, consumer audience? Even if consumers aren’t your target market, if you move your company’s message up the relevance stack, you’re more likely to get top-tier coverage.
* Seagate, Eastwick Communications and Orriant are current or former Socialized clients.