October 10, 2009

Brand Survival in the Age of Asymmetric Communications
Managing the challenges and maximizing the opportunities presented by social media's new world order

MH Group Communicatoins, Tel: (212) 984­0672, Address: 100 Park Avenue, 16th Floor, New York, New York 10019 www.mhgroupcom.com

©2009 MH Group Communications

Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 If you are a corporate leader who feels safe ignoring social media because “your customers don’t use social media,” you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Your company’s online presence—your online media coverage and advertising, your search engine results, and even your company’s own Web site—is about to be overtaken by social media in a way you cannot stop, slow down or control. Until now, your company may have ignored social media without suffering obvious consequences. No more. We have entered the era of asymmetric communications, and there isn’t a place on the Web where your company can escape it. In every place that your brand exists on the Web, social media is there as well, providing vehicles for giving feedback, offering praise and criticism, and seeking a response. Your customers no longer need to seek out social media content to be exposed to it—social media is now pushed in front of them automatically everywhere they go on the Web. There is hope, however. Companies who handle this new environment correctly have an extraordinary opportunity gain trust, build connections, strengthen their brand and ultimately sell more products to their customers. Regardless, one thing is certain: The business world sits on the cusp of yet another social media transformation, and this one is far less sensitive to individual organization’s reluctance and concern. It’s the beginning of the asymmetric communications era, and only the strong will survive.

The age of asymmetric communications is distinctly different from age of conversation that preceded it for a number of reasons, all of which center on the distinction between opt­in and forced participation. The latter era was driven by two­way conversations in which stakeholders—not corporate leaders—had the final say in a brand’s relative success or failure. This was a huge departure from past communications models, all of which were built upon top­down, one­way messaging that executives delivered to stakeholders, who had very little say in the matter. Social media’s emergence upended this one­way model by introducing a means for stakeholders to “talk back.” However, while this certainly had profound implications for organizations’ brands and reputations, there was, at least to some extent, an element of choice; social media platforms cross­communicated 2

Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 only manually, in the sense that conversations taking place within a specific platform stayed there unless someone made a concerted effort to cross­pollinate messages. As an executive, you had a choice about whether to participate in social media. You could decide that SIDEBAR 1: ASYMMETRIC COMMUNICATIONS bloggers or Facebook users did not VIS­À­VIS ASYMMETRIC WARFARE represent an important audience for Conceptually not unlike asymmetric warfare, your company, and therefore either in which both sides of a conflict use vastly dissimilar, sometimes guerrilla­like tactics ignore these mediums or dabble in a with the intention of exploiting one another’s few areas of social media with a weaknesses, asymmetric communications piecemeal strategy. Your company certainly ran the risk of being taken off guard when a small fire started in social media caught the attention of traditional media and started a full­blown communications crisis. But until that actually happened, it was out of sight, out of mind. Social media was an opt­in environment.
has profound implications for both companies and their stakeholders. Because neither side has the option to opt­ out of participating in social media, traditional “wartime” practices employed during a crisis, including negotiating, bartering or even surrendering, are rendered ineffective. The reason: New Web applications that demolish opt­in models have begun to emerge, and their effects, both positive and negative, are taking well­ established brands by surprise.

No more. Thanks to asymmetric communications, this opt­in participation is no longer opt­in. Instead of needing to seek out social media content proactively in order to be exposed to/participate in it, you and your stakeholders will now be faced with social media everywhere you go online, whether you like it or not. The implications for your business: As a corporate leader, your only hope of survival is to build a community of active online supporters who will support and defend your brand against negative attacks. These brand ambassadors’ allegiance is the only way to enhance the company’s credibility and authenticity; at the same time, the lack thereof will result in reputational crises the likes of which may not be survived. As you prepare yourself for this new asymmetric communication paradigm, you must consider three dynamics that are largely responsible for driving its evolution: Integration, aggregation and annexation.

INTEGRATION: In the opt­in age of participation, social media conversations
were largely contained within their respective platforms. In the new age of asymmetric communications, information is exchanged as easily across


Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 platforms as it is within platforms. With one click—and often automatically—online articles are shared across Facebook and Twitter; tweets appear as comments on blogs; and user­generated YouTube videos appear in Google searches as easily as corporate Web sites do. Content isn’t ranked on search engines by category; rather, algorithms assign weight to articles/tweets/blogs/videos without preference. This means that audiences no longer need to be proactively participating in social media to consume social media content in the normal course of their online activities. They don’t even have to click on a link to view dynamic content; it’s all integrated into the “traditional” Web site framework, regardless of whether or not the site’s owner put it there. As a result, if your company does not have a Twitter strategy, not only are you not managing your reputation within the Twitter community—you are also endangering your reputation throughout the entire Internet as well.

AGGREGATION: Not only do conversations in social media now move between

platforms with ease, but they can also be consolidated in a single location for user­friendly consumption. At this very moment, social media content related to your company that exists on various platforms is being collected and stored on a single site without your knowledge or permission; this site then becomes a compelling destination for users who might not have scoured the Internet and pieced together disparate shreds of information about your company, but who would be interested to digest the information in a single location. This relates back to the influence of user­generated content over individuals’ decisions to buy a product, use a service or recommend a brand, which was a prominent pillar of communications and marketing in the age of conversation. Numerous studies and reports confirmed that consumers trusted people like themselves when it came to believing information about a company—much more than they trusted the company’s executives, marketing messages or even employees. Therefore, if a Facebook friend or Twitter follower had something good to say about your company, it bolstered trust in your products/services. If, on the other hand, online conversations were negative, the you probably found yourself facing an image crisis. Aggregation in the context of asymmetric communications makes this trend all the more compelling, as users can find positive/negative feedback about your company in one place—even on your own Web site—thanks to Web applications like Seth Godin’s Squidoo [see Sidebar 2].


Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 This new generation of social media aggregators is of interest not only to your consumers, but also to Web properties like Google due to the ever­growing array of content that drives search engine rankings. Thus, you need to prepare for a world where sites aggregating social media content will dominate your company’s top search results.
SIDEBAR 2: SQUIDOO’S “BRANDS IN PUBLIC” PROJECT IS THE CORPORATE “FULL MONTY” The “In­Public” project begun by Web guru Seth Godin in 2005, Squidoo’s latest creation came in the form of a mashup, launched on September 23, 2009 in collaboration with BzzAgent. Dubbed “Brands in Public,” the service could very well be a ticking time bomb for companies big and small. The premise: “Brands In Public” is a collection of public­facing dashboards of some of the world’s biggest brands, from Allstate [see Image 1] and The Home Depot to Zappos and In­n­Out Burger. Each dashboard compiles a list of everything that’s being said about the brand throughout the Web, whether it appeared on a blog, NYTimes.com, Twitter or YouTube. But here’s the catch: Most “Brands In Public” pages aren’t controlled or authorized by the brands themselves; rather, they are an automated stream of tweets, comments, conversations and videos, aggregated so that consumers can see what people all around the Web—and the world—are saying about a brand in a single location. That said, companies do have the option to “take over” the page about their brand and moderate the conversation—for a $400­a­month fee. This doesn’t alter the aggregation of brand­related content from around the Web, but it does allow the company to respond to critics, highlight fans and contribute content. Godin put the concept into context, saying, “You can’t control what people are saying about you. What you can do is organize that speech. You can organize it by highlighting the good stuff and rationally responding to the not­so­ good stuff. You can organize it by embracing

ANNEXATION: The third and perhaps

most compelling driver of asymmetric communications is annexation, or the ability for external stakeholders to host conversations and commentary on any corporate Web site—yes, even yours—without being granted permission from its host. The epitome of asymmetry, the choice to opt in/out of conversations is completely absent, thus leaving corporate leaders with no way around social media adoption. Those who still choose to remain unengaged will find themselves in a morass of rogue stakeholder commentary—in their home territory, no less. The most pertinent example of annexation­enabling Web applications is Google’s Sidewiki, which allows users to create a sidebar comment section on any Web page in the Internet Explorer, Firefox and, in the near future, Chrome Web browser [see Image 2]. The implications for corporate Web sites are enormous: With Sidewiki’s September 2009 launch, Google made each site social without giving users the option to say

the people who love your brand and challenging them to speak up and share the good world. And you can respond to it in a thoughtful way, leaving a trail that stands up over time.”


Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 IMAGE 1

“no.” Now, disgruntled customers or employees can create a running commentary on your homepage that will be visible to any other visitor, so long IMAGE 2

Brands In Public” creates brand­specific dashboards that aggregate all

Google Sidewiki enables consumer­generated commentary on any site.

as they have installed Sidewiki (which is free) on their own browser. In fact, therein lies the disrupting factor: These conversations appear on corporate Web sites, but they are hosted on users’ browsers, thereby removing all control from 6

Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 corporate executives. In the ongoing arms race to control the Web, the likes of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Facebook are sure to be on Google’s tail with their own similar technologies. Plus, when integrated into social networks like Facebook, Sidewiki becomes all the more powerful, allowing strangers to comment alongside trusted friends, and vice versa. You cannot moderate this commentary because it’s hosted on users’ browsers. You cannot “talk” over it with advertising, because this advertising will still appear alongside comments (plus, your will be paying for the ad space while users’ comments will reside there for free). You cannot ignore the commentary by diverting your energies to a different Web property, because that too will be infiltrated. So, what can you do?


The social media environs’ transformation from conversational to asymmetric is challenging for all businesses, and not simply because of the reputational risks involved. Overcoming the risks introduced by a truly uncontrolled social media experience requires the equivalent of overcoming inertia—that is, a circumstance in which the company becomes 100% serious about implementing an integrated social media program. Studies have consistently shown a company’s supporters will advocate on behalf of the brand and defend it against unfair attacks—enough of a reason to engage in social media in the age of conversation, and even more so in the context of asymmetric communications. Today, a company’s best strategy is to recruit an active community of supporters, and to built up a reservoir of trust and goodwill that can be drawn upon when times get tough. These are the times when loyal stakeholders need to be armed with facts about the company, which must be detonated in the event of any misgivings.

Indeed, the people most likely to leap to your defense on the Web are people who are very active in social media. Just as the best defense against a guerrilla army is a native population that supports the “home team’s” cause, the best defense against negative attacks online are your most loyal brand ambassadors. They will be infinitely more authentic and compelling than any corporate representative could be.


Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 In order to have these loyal brand ambassadors prepped and ready for battle, your also need to fulfill the following obligations: BUILD A ROOF BEFORE IT’S RAINING: A community of supporters won’t spontaneously appear out of thin air once your company is attacked. Rather, this community needs to be built and engaged over time through substantive and authentic interactions with the brand in social media channels. There are many different ways to build a community within a social media channel, but each requires you and your fellow executives to begin before their reputation is at stake. POLISH ALL BUSINESS AND COMMUNICATIONS PRACTICES: Influential audiences will call you out on every single misstep via the same social media platforms that you must use to defend yourself. Therefore, your business processes must be solid, and the lines of communication to each stakeholder group must be well established and active. Your must remember that any stakeholder can cause trouble, and the brand’s supporters won’t come to the defense if they don’t have the facts or, worse, if they feel your company is in the wrong. THROW THE BEST PARTY IN TOWN: Ideally, you want these online conversations to happen on your on turf, as that offers the greatest opportunity to influence the conversation’s trajectory—even if said conversation isn’t instigated on your own accord. That said, stakeholders won’t choose to attend your proverbial social media party if all that’s being served is corporate drivel; instead, they will go where the real conversations are taking place—where they will have plenty to choose from. Thus, it is important for you to build social media properties that contain engaging content. You must also be responsive to your audiences. If you don’t answer the question, your stakeholder will find someone else who will.


So far, we have focused primarily on the dangers of the asymmetric communications environment, but there are also many benefits for companies 8

Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009 who engage correctly. Think how much more credible your company's Web site will appear with a sidebar of positive comments from your customers, or how beneficial a social media aggregation site filled with people reacting positively to your online content would be to your brand. It is fair to say that companies who handle this new environment correctly have an extraordinary opportunity gain trust, build connections, strengthen their brand and ultimately boost their bottom lines significantly.


Designing and executing a holistic social media engagement strategy is not an easy task, and MH Group Communications can help you through it. Created to take advantage of today’s dynamic communications environment, MH Group Communications addresses the unmet needs of corporate leaders in managing the challenges and maximizing the opportunities presented by social media’s emergence and subsequent proliferation. MH Group marries a traditional consultative approach with an entrepreneurial spirit, bringing a unique combination of experience, creativity and dexterity to clients who are dissatisfied with the value and impact offered by large, global agencies. Standing at the intersection of corporate communications and digital media, MH Group helps clients recognize the opportunity in today’s disrupted communications environment to gain a competitive advantage by implementing smart, digitally driven strategies throughout their entire organizations. MH Group’s strategies are always developed to maximize the divergent characteristics of social media, which are not created equal and do not function the same way across the board. To form a cohesive, integrated social media strategy, MH Group will: • • Identify the best social media platforms through which to engage influential audiences. Deliver communications messages through discrete programs designed for specific digital platforms while ensuring each platform is completely integrated with your overall business objectives. 9

Asymmetric Communications
October 10, 2009

For more information and a free consultation, please contact:

Daniel P. Bingham
MH Group Communications daniel.bingham@mhgroupcom.com 408­621­5786 www.mhgroupcom.com