Psychopaths, Robots and Airheads: Corporations on Social Media

Tom Liacas —  January 3, 2013 — 14 Comments

As a former digital activist who spent most of his time obsessing over the right tone and content needed to engage and build advocate communities, I can only shake my head at the way corporations behave online. Nevertheless, it is my job to help corporate social media work for all involved, so here are some honest observations directed at correcting the situation.

Corporations (and all large institutional players) desperately want to stake their claims somewhere on social media because, more and more, that’s where the party’s at. Trouble is, they suck at being human and being human is THE core competency that social media demands of its users. The crux of the matter, I believe, is that the etiquette of social media exchanges confronts the power that big guys are used to wielding in communication spaces. As a result, we routinely witness the following varieties of antisocial behavior.

The Psychopath

What kind of individual would decide that a time of mass suffering and hardship was good timing for a joke or sales opportunity? A psychopath, right? Well, this is exactly the kind of behavior that was driving the most notable social media #fail episodes of late. To wit, Kenneth Cole poking fun and selling shoes during violent Arab Spring protests or American Apparel surfing the wave of tweets around Hurricane Sandy to offer some good deals. How do such senseless posts happen? IMHO, they are products of a culture in which business is divorced from social realities… Where any group of people, even those united by suffering, becomes a good target market. Off work, I believe that the very same people who penned these tweets would never have considered doing the same from their personal accounts.

Missing social skill:

Human empathy. Those in charge of social should always consider that their posts and responses will be received by people with feelings (Yes, I feel ridiculous writing this). The urge to bomb audiences at any time with a marketing message should always be tempered by the following questions: “What do I, as a sentient being, feel in this situation? What kind of post would I publish to mark the occasion?” Trusting one’s human instincts over corporate prerogatives would work wonders here.

The Robot

If someone entered a cocktail party and began spouting one liners over and over without listening to others or answering any questions, you might well check their back to see where the batteries go. And yet, this is exactly how hundreds of corporate brand pages operate on Facebook, even today. These pages are used as bulletin boards where one-way corporate announcements are pushed out daily with either no effort made to engage with the audience or willful refusal to open any kind of dialogue. When you cut and paste a traditional broadcast operation into the social setting, you create a robot. Would you delegate a robot to represent your company at social functions?

Missing social skill:

Conversation. Social media is a two-way street. Listening to your audience and engaging with them occasionally are not just nice things to do, they are the basics of legitimacy on this medium. Neglect to converse and you will be mocked and shunned sooner or later. De-activate your online robots. Replace them with humans.

The Airhead

At the time of writing, many corporations have tackled the feat of amassing thousands, if not millions, of fans and followers on their social networks.  They now face the much greater challenge of finding something to say to their audiences, day in, day out, regarding their toilet paper, antiperspirant or kitchen mop. The result? Hundreds of thousands of words of vacuous copy and anodyne feelgood photos clogging up broadband worldwide. The amount of trite fluff out there is so vast that there are now fan pages dedicated to featuring the dumbest brand material online. How can this tide treacle be stopped? All brands, even household products, can plug into what people really want to talk about regarding the product: How to fix it if it’s broken, what the company is doing to improve its social and environmental footprint and… well, if you’re running out of things to say, is there really a need to maintain a 2 million person Facebook community around your product, messaged daily?

Missing social skill:

Active listening and respect for others’ interests. Conversation mapping tools are out there now that help with this. Once you find out what people really want to talk about concerning your products or brand, stick to these subjects. You may be asked some hard questions but, if you are absolutely unwilling to face them, you shouldn’t be on social media.

Time to get human!

Social media, at its root, emerged as a peer to peer environment where users of all levels of influence were meant to interact with one another as… people. Corporations, governments, and even unions, are definitely not used to behaving like humble social beings with all the compromise and sensitivity this requires. But as communication goes more and more social, there is no other way around it. ‘Getting human’ will require a major attitude shift best argued for from a results and ROI perspective. Ultimately, social media success is not so much about getting touchy feely, it’s about building resonance and following for ideas. For businesses and institutions, this translates into greater reach and better return on communications efforts. For society, the spinoff benefit is more open and productive exchanges with previously opaque power structures.
Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

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An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.
  • Thanks for the post. I myself have too often tried to create technical tools to automatically populate social networks, in effect creating robots. These tools can be useful, but a good strategy, and especially the right resources, must come first.

  • …cool provocation Tom…love your work ! …as someone who watched our brands move from using social media as another “channel” to becoming fully into dialgoue and conversations I tend to agree with most of your observations. To build on your “listen” stance…sometimes the consumer (beer drinkers that I’ve seen anyway) don’t necessarily want to get into a conversation with their brand…they actually might like to see what’s up in that world of the brand, what promotions they can parake in, what specials they can embrace etc. Thus it’s not an either or…but more it is effectively listening to the audience to know what communication they would like from the brand. Most certainly its not about just broadcasting to…it is all about engaging with the consumer in the social networks. Cheers @MolsonFerg

    • Thanks Ferg, always nice to hear from you! You’re right about the majority, most of us are listeners rather than participants. Sometimes, just showing that you have listened to your audience is interaction enough.

  • Lynne Mac

    Wow. Excellent, comprehensive survey of the social(business) landscape at this moment. “Zeitgeisty”? Off with the airheads – please!

  • Hope Elliott

    Hi Tom!

    Your blog post was, appropriately, very engaging! You were not too harsh whatsoever, I think you touched upon a crucial issue regarding the way company’s are going about promoting their products and services through social media vehicles.

    It’s important for company’s to realize that their clients and affiliates (as individuals) are effected by social and political issues everyday. When large scale issues are reported throughout the media, it is crucial for company’s to be conscious and sensitive to their communities needs. All too often it is ignored that ones social media following is a community and that there are people behind the posts, pictures, and tweets.

    It is in any company’s best interest to be mindful of current events, and that being tactful during times of turmoil will work in their favor. Corporations need to change their social media strategy to one that’s more human, showing their clients and affiliates that they have the ability to relate and engage in what’s going on in the world.

    One of the things that is so special about #engagementlabs is in the title. Company’s need to realize that their social media followers want, and need, to be engaged in the content they’re putting out.

    I really enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing!

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  • I like the analysis, but I’m not convinced by your conclusions: maybe it’s time brands started to allow their people to be people, rather than faceless, personality-less brand representatives? More

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt. Agree with you entirely! Some businesses, Zappos famously, get this and run with it. Others have a very long way to go! Humanizing corporate social media accounts is really just a first step to building better relationships with customers. In an upcoming e-Book, I also recommend companies unleash the many humans on their payroll and let them each have a voice. Easy to say but harder to manage!

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  • Pour mes lecteurs(trices) francophones, je vous invite à poster vos commentaires en français comme l’à fait Virginie ici :

    “Je trouve effectivement le ton provocant, mais pas
    trop, on sent l’humour derrière, et le fait que tes conseils arrivent en
    fin de chaque petite remarque est très judicieux, car cela casse un
    effet de surenchère qu’on aurait pu craindre.

    Les entreprises et les institutions ont du mal, pour la plupart d’entre
    elles, à rompre avec leurs habitudes de communication”one way”, notre
    culture ne s’y prête pas. Nous sommes dans le pays du proverbe “pour
    vivre heureux, vivons cachés” et lorsque j’affirme à mon client qu’un
    site web corporate se résume à une pièce d’identité ou un simple
    passeport sans âme, qu’il faut que cette personne montre visage humain,
    ils peinent à le croire. Donc utiliser un style gentiment provocateur,
    avec des pointes d’humour pour que les gens retiennent mieux, est un
    choix judicieux à mon humble avis.

    Je ne puis qu’approuver le fond, et je pense que je vais faire suivre
    ton post à mes clients, pour leur démontrer que ce que nous leur
    répétons depuis des mois est également partagé par des experts de ton

    Enfin je me cantonne au marché français car je suis loin d’être experte sur les autres en termes de culture stylistique.

    Voilà, j’espère que ceci t’aidera dans ta démarche, et n’hésites pas à
    me solliciter encore si tu en as besoin, ou si tu ne trouves pas ce que
    je dis super clair.”



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