Loss of control on the social web is a myth

Exhibit 1: The art of clean-up (source Ursus Wehrli)

Over the last 6-8 years, I have heard it again and again: organizations entering the social web will lose control of their message. As a result, the fear of losing control has had – and still has – many corporations hesitating to communicate via social media platforms. Today, I will argue that this loss of control is a myth. In fact, the new ways of online communication even enable a gain of control which can potentially be scary. When I recently found Ursus Wehrli’s fantastic photos presenting his “art of clean-up”, they not only made me laugh, but also reminded me how artificial the idea of control in human relations is (see exhibit 1).

Let’s start by clarifying some terms involved. When thinking about the meaning of control within the context of (marketing) communications, I find it helpful to differentiate channels. Market research firm Forrester provided a nice little framework defining the boundaries between owned, paid and earned media (see exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2: Forrester defining owned, paid, earned media

You do have “control” over your messages in paid media like display ads or owned media such as corporate web sites, but it is merely the control over your own monologue. If control means “to exercise restraining or directing influence over someone or something“, controlling your message in paid and owned media isn’t more than “self-control”. This is true for traditional and social media. However, the control ends with people’s reactions to your message. And again, this is true for traditional and social media. While you can control the content of your ad or your blog post, there is no guarantee as to how your audience will respond to it. The difference between traditional and social media is that you can easily see the response in social media whereas you can’t see it in traditional media. You don’t see what people think of your TV ad or if they care at all, but you can see what people say on the web. Hence, you actually have more control in social media, since you can monitor what the issue is and respond to it. Knowing what your stakeholders think of you all the time is a huge advantage, in particular for your messaging.

What people say about you is what you earned in terms of reputation. And again, this is true for traditional and social media. However, the reach and speed of earned media was much smaller before social media existed. Earned content was limited to independent journalists writing about your organization after checking multiple sources, or people promoting your brand offline through word-of-mouth after having an exciting experience. Since the arrival of social media, word-of-mouth is on stereoids, which makes reputational issues and wins earlier visible and actionable. This is not bad news, but very good news for communicators who want to be in control. In fact, the problem is not that communicators lose control over their message, the problem is that they possibly gain too much control by tracking every step of their audiences on the web. With that kind of knowledge, you might be in a position to communicate as targeted and relevant as never before, but you might also creep silently under people’s skin without having their consent. This is what Facebook users fear when they complain about intransparent privacy settings on the network.

It is one of the ironies of our time that corporate communicators fear loss of control on the social web while at the same time social web users fear loss of control over their personal data because of commercial (or political) interests. It is one of the great challenges of our time to balance the commercial interest in providing targeted and compelling content with the personal interest in privacy. We should rather focus our attention on this issue than on the loss of message control, because it is a myth.

Georg Kolb

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