The Harvard Business Review has posted yet another blog post waxing poetic on the magic of social media marketing that substitutes the comments of cheerleaders for even a hint of editorial responsibility or factual accuracy. Letting it get away with running such nonsense would be like shrugging at an Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on the truthiness of the Piltdown Man. 

Read the blog for yourself, but my take is that it claims two points: 

  • Brands should use social media promotions to build "trust" among consumers
  • Such online trust aggregates into "banks" matter to businesses

These claims are regularly presented as de facto givens by social media advocates. The argument seems straightforward enough: consumers like to spend time on social media, and their chatter (primarily on the big name technology platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) has influences on brands that are both immediate and lasting. Positive activity benefits business while negative activity hurts them, so 21st Century brand reputations are built via friending clicks, votes, comments and other online behaviors. If your company doesn't fund campaigns to manipulate them, and programs to monitor said actions, you're behind the curve. 

It's just not true. 

The HBR story asserts the connection between online behavior and offline reality with the United Breaks Guitars example, in which a disgruntled United Airlines passenger posted what became the most-viewed YouTube of 2009. The clip generated zillions of online comments that riffed on the horribleness of the brand. The only problem is that United reported its first upbeat quarter after the video achieved its notoriety. For all of the "u suk" comments on its Facebook page there was no commensurate decline in bookings. It still got away with charging the same prices. It wasn't business as usual, for sure. Business got better

So using this case to claim a causal connection between online behavior and offline reality is about as scientific as giving Twitter feeds responsibility for making the Sun rise and set. The HBR essayist makes the alternate case of Southwest Airlines offending a customer and receiving supportive tweets in its defense, but I still come to the same conclusion. 

Who cares?

Apologists excuse away this lack of any meaningful connection with vague references to long-term brand and reputation, which is a rationale for making marketing decisions that has been hotly debated (and regularly discredited) since the days of bouffant hairdos and broadcast TV. Or they'll reference some abstract, almost genetic change in the very makeup of humankind that makes the otherwise meaningless chatter somehow matter. The discussion of "trust" as defined by a litany of online comments over time must purposefully choose correlation in lieu of causality, ignore established measures of financial value, and presume that the nanosecond it takes to click on something is the same thing as reasoned, meaningful engagement.

Going the next step and claiming that there’s such a thing as a "bank" on these social platforms would be laughable if the essayist weren't a former Harvard Business School professor. You can't apply any quality we'd normally associate with the word to what happens online -- reliability, consistency of process and measurement, even objective existence -- any more than we could ever use it to understand the value of brands over time (i.e. good luck withdrawing any of that brand equity on which you've been told to spend money for years). 

It's as if we're letting a goldfish describe the parameters of the world by looking at the curved boundary of its fishbowl.

Worse, the fish is high...or at least you have to be smoking something to buy into the cases the HBR essayist cites as ways brands can build trust. He loves what Pepsi and Coke have done via marketing programs with charitable tie-ins: Pepsi took a chunk of its budget that it had perennially wasted on Super Bowl TV commercials and created "Project Refresh," which awards grants to applicants with do-good projects who are voted most deserving, and Coke gave a buck to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for every virtual gift friends sent to friends on Facebook.

Marketers have long exploited charities as both a selling tool and symbolic apology for whatever bad their businesses have done in the world. Fast food companies give money to fight the poor eating and obesity their products encourage. Cosmetics companies directly support women’s causes the same time their products indirectly tell them they’re not good enough. "Buy our stuff and we’ll give to charity X" has always been a viable sales prompt on top of any promised functional benefits.

But trust? Bank? Huh?

I'm all for companies giving money back to communities, so there's nothing inherently wrong with what the soda pop companies are doing. Most brands do at least something in this regard. There's just little that's particularly right about the actions as marketing strategies. Pepsi doesn’t "own" good works projects (nobody does, except maybe Habitats for Humanity) and the chasm is utterly vast between Project Refresh and selling more cases of carbonated sugar water. Ditto for Coke's Facebook giveaway, irrespective of how many friends it has on its Facebook page. To call these interactions "relationships" is like saying you know a celebrity because you saw her picture in a magazine. The picture is probably worth more than the promotional clicks, actually.

The only thing consumers can trust with certainty is that these companies are trying to find novel ways to sell things without admitting as much. There's nothing trustworthy in that. Perhaps that's why corporate reputations are at all-time lows in spite of the social media brilliance celebrated by the HBR blogger.

I guess what bothers me most about this article in particular and the subject generally is that companies need to change the way they communicate, not just with consumers but with all of their constituent audiences. The lack of trust in what brands say has been the primary driver of consumer reliance on one another (or on the anonymous Crowd), and I believe that the decline of faith in our private and public institutions has been very much a self-inflicted wound. Today's social media technologies aren't inherently better ways to communicate than any other...they're just less bad than the traditional approaches of ads, press releases, mainstream media analyses, etc. We don't need new rules as much as we should reacquaint ourselves with all of the old rules we choose to violate.

Reputation matters, duh, but you can't get good business strategy out of bad or sloppy analysis. Why is so much of the blather about social media in such a dire hurry to claim legitimacy (perhaps because most of the expert authors are in the business of selling services to deliver said rush). The HBR story could have just as easily studied why there's absolutely no good reason why low-involvement, high volume consumer brands like Coke and Pepsi are even wasting time or budgets "doing social" in the first place.

Here's what I wish the HBR story told us:

  • The tools to build credibility, authority, and trust in the marketplace have absolutely nothing to do with marketing tricks, but rather with how, where, when, why, and with whom companies actually the real world, doing real things. 
  • The location of reliable and financially-relevant trust isn't in the online cloud but in the functional reality of business practices. 
  • The function of social media is to share, narrate, and improve the reality of business operations, not serve as a virtual stand-in or distraction from it.
  • We really and truly don't know how to do any of this yet, and it needs the attention of experts on culture, behavior, history, and business reality vs. more riffs from inspired advocates. 

The Harvard Business Review should know better. Instead it's just passing the bong.

(Image: "The Rake's Progress, Plate VIII - The Rake in a Madhouse," engraving published 1735, J. Dicks, London; I believe this is a work in the public domain)

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