I start this post assuming that you have a certain level of knowledge with respect to Twitter and the impact it is having on brands – whether they choose to participate in the Twittisphere or not. Brands and branding are now deeply embedded within the Twitter world. Whether you choose to participate in the conversation (see links at end of post) going on with respect to your company or product, it is going on with or without you. So now that the power of social media and specifically Twitter are just now starting to be realized by the C-Suite (see the Business Week Series), everyone is looking for that concrete example of just why your company needs to get involved in the Twittersphere whether you had planned to or not.

Here is that example – a story on how the power of Twittering critics of a Motrin campaign actually caused Johnson & Johnson to pull it. The story is simple enough to understand but as you follow it you will see there are plenty of lessons to take away – I give you a run down of mine at the end of this post.

In a new commercial, Motrin thought a funny and edgy message would be to advertise relief for women who were suffering back pain due to what can only be described as “baby wearing”. The advertisement refers to babies continuously as “these things” asking if mother’s who carry their babies close to thier bodies cry more than mothers who do not. There must have been at least one person who looked at this ad and saw it as an edgy and funny commercial, but after the groundswell of criticism that Motrin experienced that person’s opinion no longer matters.

The campaign went online on September 30, 2008 and was circulating in magazines for a few weeks before that date but it was on Friday, November 14 that a bunch of critics began rallying together on twitter and the blogosphere and the flurry became the exact thing that Chalene Li describes in her book, it was a Groundswell.

On that Friday, Los Angeles blogger Jessica Gottlieb sent a “Tweet” to her 1,018 followers (that number has since jumped to 1,505 as I write this) and alerted them to the Motrin ad and just how offensive she found it. On Saturday, Katja Presnal (a woman who had never met Gottlieb and lived on the other side of the country) saw the Tweet and swung into action. She took a collection of Tweets and comments that had started to prolipherate through the blogosphere and she combined them into a nine minute YouTube video entitled “Motrin Ad Makes Moms Mad” which as I write this has been viewed over 78,000 times (this is a video that has been online for two weeks!). Ms. Presnal quickly Tweeted her new content to her 4,221 Twitter followers. From there the “Groundswell” began. The blogosphere and Twitterverse started blowing up with people voicing their opinions on the advertisement.

No matter what side of the conversation you were on, the fact of the matter was it was taking place and the only people conspicuously absent from the dialogue were Motrin or Johnson & Johnson. The weekend Blackberry emails and phone calls must have started because by Sunday the website promoting the ad campaign had been taken down and VP of Marketing Kathy Wildmer was apologizing to bloggers via email.

When the site was finally restored it contained a very simple message from Ms. Wildmer:

“We have heard you. On behalf of McNeil Consumer Healthcare and all of us who work on the Motrin brand, please accept our sincere apology. We are in the process of removing this ad from all media. It will, unfortunately, take a bit of time to remove it from our magazine advertising, as it is on newsstands and in distribution.”

Obviously a terrific story to prove the power of Twitter and the blogsphere, but what lessons should companies take away from it?

Listen & Learn – Then Speak

By this I mean that companies should be claiming their corporate Twitter accounts now if they have not already and whomever they task with leading the charge on their social media efforts must learn to listen before they will be heard. Twitter is not about promoting your brand in an extroverted fashion, in fact I would suggest that you rarely if ever want to simply Tweet a link to your corporate website. Twitter is about learning and listening to the audience that is discussing your brand, industry or other topic that affects your business.

We must crawl before we walk, and walk before we run (though my nephew seems to defy that) and such is the same in social media. First claim your account and then begin to follow people who have taken an interest in your brand. Follow people who are both positive and negative. Follow people who these people follow. Quickly you will see that you find yourself smack in the middle of the circle of influence with respect to your brand, product or industry.

At the same time as you are discovering who the right people to follow are you should also be paying attention to what they say, what kind of questions they ask and what type of Tweets they tend to retweet to their followers. In doing so you will learn the tenor of the conversation that is currently going on and where appropriate you can join in with suggestive links or answers. By taking the time to learn who to follow you will inevitably ensure that you do not miss the conversations going on that concern you, your product or your brand. Further you will be able to gain credibility and a voice with the people you follow if you first listen to them and learn who they are and what they want before you try to push information you think they want at them.

Be Prepared To Respond

As seen in this case a rapid response is needed in situations such as this, and not just any rapid response. Pulling down your website (or ad) or going silent (assuming you have a voice which in this case Motrin did not) in the Twitterverse are not the responses you want to have to engage in while you try to devise a better strategy.

So what can you do, David Armano has two really good suggestions on how to be prepared to respond in a situation such as this.

First if your site has to be taken down in order to respond to a crisis, re-design it so that it can be updated quickly and easily without having to throw your organization and agencies into a panic. Worry about your response strategy, not the design of your site.

Do not do nothing – Look at how quickly the mommy community organized and produced an authentic video. It’s because they don’t have legal guidelines holding them back. You probably do—but if you can figure a way around them, you can fight authenticity with authenticity, which looks less like a fight and more like a conversation anyway.

User Generated Content

User generated content has been around since the inception of the Internet and it can either be fabulous for you and your brand or it can hurt you immensly. Whether it is teenagers who make fan sites dedicated to music artists or the video generated in this instance the fact is that user generated content does not have to pass the rigourous requirements that corporately generated content does. So what can you do? In my experience you need a two-fold strategy.

First and foremost you need to be dilligent in protecting your brand from slander and content that is misleading or factually incorrect. This will often involve some legal representation and although you do not want to make enemies the simple fact is that you cannot have people creating content that leads to confusion or brand harm. However if you see user generated content that is not intended to be harmful but is actually doing harm, you might first try to engage the content’s author and explain to them what is actually incorrect and suggest some fixes. I guarantee if you lend a hand with links and other media your efforts will be rewarded ten-fold.

Second why not turn the situation around and give those people who want to make content the tools to do so. If you have a specific product image that you want to see proliferated when people discuss your product then make that image easy to find and give instructions how to download it and use it. The more tools you give to people and the easier you make it for people to build their own factually correct content, the more of it you will see. It is just that simple.

Wow, that’s a lot to digest in a single post but I think you get my point, planning and engagement are key to ensuring you do not get caught in a situation like the one Motrin found itself in.

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