Social Media: A Comment on Commenting, or, Would You Like Spam on That Post?

Today’s Washington Post has an article detailing the John McCain presidential campaign’s new frequent flyer model for online commenting. Here’s how it’s described by reporter Paul Farhi:

On McCain’s Web site, visitors are invited to “Spread the Word” about the presumptive Republican nominee by sending campaign-supplied comments to blogs and Web sites under the visitor’s screen name. The site offers sample comments (“John McCain has a comprehensive economic plan . . .”) and a list of dozens of suggested destinations, conveniently broken down into “conservative,” “liberal,” “moderate” and “other” categories. Just cut and paste.”

What do the little McCainiacs get for their trouble?

“People who sign up for McCain’s program receive reward points each time they place a favorable comment on one of the listed Web sites (subject to verification by McCain’s webmasters). The points can be traded for prizes, such as books autographed by McCain, preferred seating at campaign events, even a ride with the candidate on his bus, known as the Straight Talk Express, according to campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.”

On the face of it this Astroturf (so named by Farhi because of its faux grass-roots quality) is an innovative and powerful way to harness social media sites to promote McCain’s candidacy.

From a marketing perspective the benefits seem enticing – an army of volunteers who will post your message across targeted sites, presumably with links to send people back to a good landing page. As a secondary benefit all those links pointing back to the landing page look good to search engines. Tying the comments in to a reward scheme gives your troops incentive to post early and often — racking up those points to get a ride on the campaign bus.

Marketing isn’t just about numbers though – brand perception is equally important when looking at an overall campaign. By supplying readymade templates the McCain folks ensure a unified message goes out, but at what expense? The point of social media is the open exchange of many different ideas and viewpoints. A unified army of commenters all posting canned opinions is simply spam, and like the stuff that goes directly to my Junk e-mail folder, social media sites and users will either start blocking it, calling it out for what it is, or simply ignoring it.

An important thing to remember about social media is that clumsy marketing is deeply resented and can do long term damage to a brand. Facebook – itself a core social media site – has faced criticism over the marketing it allowed members to recieve (as well as member information marketers could see). In the end they had to apologize to their members.

The Post article made me think of a headline in satirical newspaper the Onion today: “Local Idiot to Post Comment On Internet.” Essentially that’s how the comments will be treated by blogs and other sites.

Is it always a bad idea to reward your customers or fans to comment about your brand in social media? Not if you encourage them to be upfront and personal about what they are doing, respectful of others and to do it in the spirit of the platform they are on. For instance a contest encouraging users to send in their best comments to win a prize, whether it be a bus ride in the case of a political candidate or a free screening to a movie for a film studio at least encourages an interaction that is unique rather than canned. There is less message control but therein lies the beauty of social media – its a conversation, not a filibuster.

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