Brand marketers have been asking me the same question for over 20 years using different words. In the 90’s I called it the “Blair Witch Factor.” How can I spend $25K and deliver a $250 million ROI? Today, that same question applies to the Holy Grail: earned media. The right kind of earned media delivers conversion rates that can be five times higher than traditional paid media. Plus, the emergence of more sophisticated measurement tools allows marketers to put tangible numbers into their marketing-mix models.
Despite the quest, earned media isn’t always a good thing. It works when the right people -- your brand advocates and satisfied customers -- are engaged in the three R’s: rating, reviewing and recommending your brand. It doesn’t work as well when it’s passive: someone shares something with either lukewarm sentiment or little or no commentary, leaving room for interpretation as to the strength of the endorsement. The riskiest category is the five-alarm fire, when something backfires in a massive way, leaving the brand scrambling to do damage control.
With visions of sweet retweets dancing in our heads, brands must be exceptionally deliberate in how they provide a springboard to a digital conversation, for earned media to deliver on its promise. Here are a few pointers:
Make sure your story is untwistable
To avoid the McDonald’s #McDStories trap (when you ask an innocent question and get a not-so-nice response), examine all the ways that things could go right or wrong. Don’t just rely on your marketing team for feedback. Ask social media citizens who work for you. If your idea is foolproof, go for it -- but watch for foolishness and be prepared to react quickly.
Have operators (that is, social media people) standing by 24/7
Monitor and respond to any posts that veer in the wrong direction. It’s hard to believe, because these are social media best practices circa 2009, but snafus often happen in off-hours. Make sure your community manager has the authority to respond in a crisis -- or has the authority to wake up the executive who can respond -- or has the presence and experience to keep his or her head in the middle of the night (I’m talking to you, Applebee’s.) Any company whose community manager accidentally tweets something terrible and off-brand instead of posting to their personal feeds better be ready to react with appropriate contrition.
Likewise, they should be standing by 24/7 to look for golden opportunities
Okay, Oreo -- I’ve dunked in the dark and I know that mostly marketers spread the tweet. Oreo’s quick response to the Super Bowl blackout is a case study for our business and offers lessons about how to maintain sanity and get results. Oreo’s post was only possible because the brand did the work up front -- it had a clear brand story, realized through smart creative strategy, coupled with an empowered team.
Be wise when going after competitors or playing in controversial arenas
Your competition has loud and opinionated brand ambassadors too. Wendy’s learned this the hard way when they tweeted “we proudly serve everyone”, suggesting that Chick-fil-A did not, after the president of that chain said they supported the biblical definition of “the family unit.” Thousands of negative tweets targeting Wendy’s caused the chain to delete the tweet.
Be prepared to take a joke
Or hijack the brand hijackers for yourselves. True brilliance in earned media is when a brand can turn a negative consumer comment into a positive viral campaign. UK feminine products brand Maxiform responded to a cynical Facebook post with a satire of their own, by posting a video of a fake CEO admitting that menstruating women weren’t always as “carefree” as depicted in advertising. Having a thick, creative skin and responding quickly can go a long way to cut through the clutter and send your story propelling across social media.
Put money against it
This is counterintuitive because earned media is like a gift from the ROI gods, but if you’ve got a good thing going and it’s getting good play, invest in some advertising to help drive the story forward. Plan a promotion on a channel where the story may not have spread as far. Don’t ignore your owned media either. Offer a digital coupon on your Web site, since people will be going there to check you out. Don’t let earned media rest on its laurels -- because you never know when you’ll have that moment to cherish again.
But I bet now you’ll prepared for it when it does.