Consider the recent example of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose digital doppelganger created false identities spanning a range of social media sites and even claimed he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. ESPN advised in its NFL Rumor Central, "Not real, folks. In fact, if you see an athlete with a Twitter, you should assume -- at least at first -- that it's fake. Assume it's a Twitter twerp."
What happens to celebrities happens to brands too. Identity hijacking is prevalent in social media largely because it's easy to set up accounts and find an audience. The potential for the reach is enough of a lure. When I recently asked Facebook's Chris Pan who Facebook's audience is, he said something to the effect of, "Pretty soon it'll be everyone." He's not that far off.
Major brands have increasing recourses in taking charge of their social identities online. If you're in this elite group, you have a shot at pleading your case to sympathetic ears at various digital properties. MySpace has always restricted brand pages to paying marketers, Facebook is now aggressively cracking down on branded Pages not owned by someone affiliated with the brand, and Twitter will often turn over parked accounts to the rightful tweeter upon request.
Still, this strategy doesn't solve two issues. One is that a reactive approach could occur after squatters have already damaged a marketer or brand. The other is that for the vast majority of businesses and brands, there's no clear rightful owner. For instance, when I think of Sal's Pizza, it's the Sal's Pizza on Mamaroneck Avenue in Mamaroneck, N.Y., with the best Sicilian slices I've ever eaten. But there are Sal's Pizzas in Dallas, Boston, New Holland, Pa., and Little Neck, N.Y.; the last one even owns myspace.com/salspizza. On Twitter, @salspizza belongs to a restaurateur in Limerick, Ireland. I know the real Sal's isn't in Ireland - come on! - but it would be hard for Mamaroneck's Sal to make a case, no matter how many of my old high school buddies sign a petition.
So, what's a marketer to do? Here are ten steps to follow:
1) Run an audit of where your brands are. Note the usernames you use. If you have one flagship brand that's also your company name, then it's easy. If you have a stable of brands, this could be a long list.
2) Prioritize the usernames. In the Sal's example, the business may be Sal's Ristorante but it's known as Sal's Pizza, so salspizza (which is also easier to spell and type) would be the preferred name.
3) Use a site such as usernamecheck.com or knowem.com to enter see if your usernames are taken across scores of sites. Also check for other brand terms. Prioritize usernames that are both memorable and widely available -- that's the sweet spot.
4) For any sites that you know are priorities, register your key usernames. If you're not sure which sites to prioritize, start with the ones you've heard of.
5) Eliminate any sites that are only for consumers and are off-limits for marketers or brands. For this and the next steps, call on the most social-media-savvy person you know, ideally someone you work with closely in your company, at an agency, or elsewhere.
6) Now you need to review all the other sites and prioritize further. If you're at a total loss, use Compete or Quantcast's free tools to see how much traffic the sites get, and pick a threshold. 7) For any of these sites, if you don't plan on using them right away, fill in the minimal information required, post a link back to your homepage or the hub of your social marketing program, and adjust the privacy settings (where possible) so that's they're visible to the smallest audience. You don't want to set false expectations for engaging consumers, and you don't want to publicize a brand presence that falls short of your standards.
8) Check where competitors are. One easy way to do so is look for their most obvious usernames and visit those accounts to see if they're really competitors or squatters. If you can't find much, run some basic searches. Consider whether it's worth joining competitors on those sites if you haven't signed up already.
9) Share the list of registered usernames and passwords with a few trusted colleagues so you're not the only one with the information.
10) Don't be a jerk. You'll find opportunities to undermine competitors throughout this process. Be one of the good guys. Try believing in karma.
Ideally, marketers will have clear-cut strategies for where they want to be and how they'll develop their digital and social brand identities. But there are two problems with this approach. First, for many marketers, that's just not the case. Second, if marketers think too hard about their strategy, they may never get around to covering some of the basic steps. If you don't have a Twitter strategy, for instance, go ahead and register the most relevant usernames you can, make the profiles private, and then return to them when you know what you're doing.
People will still impersonate celebrities and brands. It's a price to pay for popularity, or notoriety if that's the case. But if you're in these arenas for real, it takes a lot of the fun off others trying to claim they're you.