So, in the Star Trek Universe (yes I’m going there again) the Ferengi Alliance is a race of ultra-capitalists that thrive on commerce. One of the core canons they live by is the “Rules of Acquisition”, which is a set of 300 or so guidelines that help one become more successful in business. There is some doubt to actually how many rules there are in the “Rules of Acquisition” as the original author of the rules started the numbering at #162 so that there would be market demand for the other 161 that had yet to be written. Cheeky eh?
Some of the rules are actually good practice (“Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to”) and some are just plain funny (“Never trust a man wearing a better suit than your own”). But, my favorite is that there is the “Unwritten Rule” (which isn’t numbered of course) that is cited – which says “when no appropriate rule applies, make one up”.
Lately with content on the Social Web – it feels a bit like the rules of what makes appropriate marketing and conversation are being made up as we go along. And, even more importantly it feels like the Social Media companies themselves may be unintentionally encouraging bad behavior with their business models.
Breaking Unwritten Rules
So, back in February, Kenneth Cole infamously tweeted that “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available”. The Twitterverse went ballistic – and shouted from rooftops about the insensitivity. So, Kenneth Cole himself apologized for it. Then, just last week – Gilbert Gottfried got fired from his job as the voice/spokesperson of the Aflac Duck for tweeting insensitive jokes about Japan.
Interestingly, as Alexandra Samuel pointed out in a blog post on HBR – the thing that got Kenneth Cole in so much trouble wasn’t the 132 characters of the Tweet – it was the one character of “#”. By inserting the hashtag “#Cairo” into the tweet – Kenneth Cole inserted his comment into a specific conversation that was going on about the Egyptian revolution. It would have been interesting to see what, if anything, the uproar would have been without the Hashtag itself.
Conversely, Gilbert didn’t use a hashtag when he tweeted out his jokes – but (and this is something that hasn’t really been covered at all) these jokes were re-tweeted (passed along) more than a 100 times each. In fact, I did a search on Twitter for one of the jokes and found at least 120 RT’s of the original tweet. Only a very small percentage of them added any “disapproving” context. Of those, most were “wow” and “too soon?” However, the ensuing flare up left Aflac in an interesting position. Should they wait out the response to see if it got bad – and risk seeming insensitive? Or, should they act quickly and decisively – fire Gottfried and risk.. well less. They clearly chose the latter.
And, combine all this within the context of a meteoric rise of Charlie Sheen and his “find an intern” campaign which with two tweets generated $100,000 for the advertising company Ad.ly and who knows how much for Charlie himself. And, of course – the results were more than a million unique visitors with 82,000 actual applications.
Bring On The Stunt Content
Two things strike me about these events – and there are lessons we can learn from each. The first is that the social web properties and some of the metrics that currently surround the social web have built in the encouragement of the creation of what I call “stunt content”.
The whole “sponsored content” model of Twitter (and to a lesser degree Facebook) is a celebration of what Kenneth Cole did – interrupt a conversation with what is ostensibly a brand advertisement. And, further, until social metrics companies find a better way to measure impact than “quantity of retweets” and “quantity of content” then – we’re being encouraged to become more impactful by being more “controversial”.
We shouldn’t be surprised that wily marketers are figuring out ways to play this game for free – pushing the “unwritten rules” of what’s right. We should expect big “Oops” like what happened to Habitat (in the UK) being caught spamming hashtags and attempting to get into trending topics? And, we shouldn’t be shocked that it’s going to take ever-larger and ever-more controversial content for us to retweet it to our networks.
The second lesson is that as we start putting together our guidelines, and intentions for the conversations we want our brands to have on the Social Web – we’ve got to extend those lines clearly to those that we work with; even if we work with them at arm’s length.
Those that defend Gilbert’s “right” to say what he said – and defending it as “what a comic does” are missing the point entirely. Of course he had the right to say it – and yes (as someone who spent a few years around comics) the source of a comic’s humor is often our darkest places.
And, of course Aflac had to know that Gilbert is one of the dirtiest comics in the world. If you just look at his Twitter stream over the last few weeks – you can see some stuff that’s AS nasty if not even nastier then the tasteless Japan jokes.
But rather, the point with the Gilbert Gottfried example is that he forgot that Twitter is not an Open Mic at a comedy club. He forgot – or maybe didn’t really even know – that there is (like it or not) a specific context to Twitter that’s emerging. These “unwritten rules” are still being made up. And he (especially as someone that has a cush job representing an insurance company) needs to be sensitive to that context or he’ll face the consequences. Aflac acted quickly and decisively. They had a line – and he crossed it. That he didn’t know (or care) where it was, is something that’s known only between him and his employer.
The Lessons We Learn
I’ve said before that I think 2011 and 2012 will be the learning years for brand marketers on the Social Web. These will be the first years that we start FIXING our Social Web Strategy, as opposed to creating one from scratch.
Just as people have asked if the Gap logo debacle was really a social media stunt – people are already wondering if the Kenneth Cole tweet fiasco was actually a deliberate campaign. And, no doubt, we’ll see if Charlie ever really does hire an intern from that social Web campaign. My guess, by the way, is that he will – and the stunt content will go from there.
So, it will be very tempting to try these things – and I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try some stunt content. But before we do let’s make sure we have a really really solid process behind us before so we know exactly HOW it’s going to go down. Let’s first make damn sure that we have our social media governance and operating processes solid before we start coloring outside the lines. In short, let’s make sure we draw our lines clearly – and communicate them to ALL that we do business with so that we KNOW when we’re crossing them.