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Anonymity and social media: who the hell are you anyway?

You can't run – but you can hide.

The old maxim seems to have been reversed for social media, and it raises some big issues for those of us involved in making the web work in B2B marketing.

What I mean is that when an individual contributes to the online content pool, that information is released to the mercy of others. You can't run away from it: once you've posted, it's out there and there's nothing you can do to get it back. This can work for you or against you: ask Domino's Pizza.

But for me, the interesting point right now is that social media makes it easy for people to hide. To assume a pseudonym. To represent others. Some call this flexibility; some call it dishonesty. But it is prevalent all over the social web and marketers are doing it - sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. Which is why I'd like to take a look at the three ways in which this matters to B2B marketers.

The ghost-writing debate

Two pieces of news this week got me thinking about this. First, I read with interest the many comments on Mark Schaefer's excellent {grow} blog. (Which is interesting for many reasons, not least of all being the only one to feature the {} characters - nice branding, Mark). Mark asked if ghost-blogging was acceptable and sparked off a stream of comments, some of which I will summarise here.

The second stimulus to write on the subject came from Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz on the FIR podcast, who brought to my attention the shocking story of Reverb PR, who have been exposed for allegedly employing a bunch of interns to post bogus app ratings on the iPhone Appstore, (aka 'astroturfing') thus dishonestly inflating their client's overall score.

The point is, in both cases, an online user is pretending to be someone else. Sometimes it's OK. Sometimes it's not. As a social media marketer, you need to know, and it depends who you are representing: a brand, a colleague, or a customer. The rules, in my opinion, are radically different for each.

Representing the customer

This is the dark side of social media, and one that has been around since the idea of the Buyersphere came along (ie a world where buyers could share opinions so freely that peer-generated content becomes the dominant influence over their buying behaviour). This is unacceptable and is exactly what Reverb PR are being slated for. Don't do it.

Representing a colleague

By representing a colleague, I refer to the ghost-blogging debate. The idea that a writer should assemble content on behalf of another person (who is usually prominent enough to warrant a blog, but too time-poor to write it for themselves). Many social media purists will say that this should never happen, because online communities are built on trusting relationships. Maybe this is naive, but it is certainly something we should strive for.
If we take blogging as the most obvious example, I believe this can work, but with the following provisos, ie:

  • if you write for someone else, your role should be to interpret their ideas, not your own. This can be achieved with a scheduled 10-minute chat every week; skilled content producers can work in this way to create an engaging and genuine stream of original content. The role of the producer is not to devise the recipe, but to prepare it for consumption.
  • the 'headline' name (can anyone think of a better term?) should always read and review the blog
  • he or she should also always respond - or dictate responses - to any comments received
  • he or she should look after 'microblogging' - the immediacy of the medium makes ghost-twittering a ridiculous idea (as well as a ridiculous word).

Representing a brand

I believe that this is the preferred way forward for B2B marketers who wish to use the social web to their advantage.

Everyone knows that brands have a defined personality. Everyone also knows that, on social media platforms, people talk to people, not to brands. So all that is required is someone with a personality that is appropriate for the brand in question.

So if, for example, a B2B organisation wants to create a blog to share their expertise and create a reputation for being positive, helpful, expert and friendly members of their online community, there is no reason why a hired hand should not write the blog.

Usually, you would expect someone who works for the company to do it. But why should a third-party be any different? The only real difference is in their terms of employment. (And don't forget that full-time employees often move on while the contracted agencies stay in place!)

The writer would use the information available to them from within the company, and share this for the benefit of the community. All this would be under their own name. They become an expert spokesperson for the brand, responsible for turning the raw expertise of the company into engaging content for the online community. There is no cover up. (NB: Please note that normal social media rules apply - we are talking about a spokesperson for the brand, not the product!)

Find your voice and speak up

Of course, there is a less desirable fourth option - and that is to do nothing at all. B2B organisations have so much to gain from social media that to stand by and allow competitors to outshine them online would be a tragedy.

Yet if - as is usually the case - you are simply too busy to get 'this blogging thing' off the ground, consider who's who on the web. You can never try to represent your customer, you should only very carefully represent another colleague, but you can and should represent your brand - at all times.

This is an ongoing discussion and we are still in the early stages of social media adoption. But by evolving the debate, I hope I am encouraging B2B marketers to do the right thing.

Is ghost-writing acceptable? Who writes for your brand? Are you a genuine contributor to the social media web - or a fake? Tell me what you think...