This article was contributed by Ryan Schradin, Director at Strategic Communications Group. Learn more about Ryan here.
Social networks provide an incredible opportunity for organizations, marketers and activists to spread their message, push policies and sell products to an online group that they feel will be open and receptive to their messages.
But just because the members of an online community exhibit a particular set of beliefs, or show favoritism to a certain group of individuals doesn’t mean that conversations contributed to elicit a particular response will be met the type of reception that you’re looking for.
Take – if you will – the recent example of the Rock Against the TPP Reddit AMA.
Watching a social media fender bender in progress
Car wreck just seems too extreme for what this was. So, let’s call this a social media fender bender.
For those unfamiliar, Rock Against the TPP is an organization of social activists, rock stars, actors and other influencers that are using their popularity and the platform it provides them to influence the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
To further clarify, the TPP is a free trade agreement awaiting ratification that will ease trade between multiple countries – most of which border the Pacific Ocean.
Opponents of the TPP – which include people across the political spectrum and social and economic groups – have multiple concerns about the agreement.
Said opponents of the TPP decided to take their concerns to a forum where they thought their message would clearly resonate. They scheduled an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit and organized to have some of their most recognized names and faces present to answer the community’s questions.
They also were using the forum to help promote a nationwide, “uprising and concert tour to stop the biggest corporate power grab in history: the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
On paper, the concept of an AMA on Reddit to rally people against the TPP seems like a great idea.
In December of last year, Reddit received 234 million visitors who looked at 8 billion pages of content. It’s a huge, highly engaged community. And politically, the Reddit community seems to be in-line with what Rock Against the TPP stands for. The community is predominantly American, younger and mostly male. The community appears to lean left and be against big business, as well as overt attempts by big businesses to game political campaigns, regulatory environments and legislation to increase profits.
The median age and demographics of the community would also imply that they would be very familiar with the individuals at the head of the Rock Against the TPP movement – musicians from popular bands Rage Against the Machine and the Flobots, as well as popular actors from films including the Hobbit trilogy. On paper, this had to seem like a low risk opportunity to spread the message of Rock Against the TPP in a friendly environment.
But then something went wrong.
The most up-voted comments (which receive the highest billing on the site) asked the members of Rock Against the TPP to explain their stance on why the TPP is such a negative thing and the, “the biggest corporate power grab in history.”
And the Rock Against the TPP members participating failed to give the substantive answers that the individuals looking for a legitimate conversation about the TPP were looking for.
Instead, they answered with vague generalities about the TPP being bad because it was “negotiated in secret,” would utilize investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) as an instrument to settle foreign trade disputes, and would, “export the worst parts of the U.S.’s broken copyright system to other countries.”
They also backed up their statements by submitting links to videos (some created as many as three years ago) and articles/blog posts on publications that were clearly biased against the TPP.
These comments were quickly ripped apart by members of the Reddit community that swooped in to set the record straight about multiple issues the Rock Against the TPP organization had with the trade deal. They shed light on the system used to negotiate trade deals, highlighting that it’s almost exclusively done in private between nations as to not lose negotiating power or tip their hands. They discussed the ISDS process and dispelled rumors that it allowed companies to circumnavigate a country’s laws. And they even provided links to analysis of the TPP from economists and other experts that were roundly in favor of the deal.
In the end, it’s doubtful that the AMA was successful in adding Redditors to the anti-TPP movement. It’s equally doubtful that the AMA was nearly the success that Rock Against the TPP assumed it would be.
So, what went wrong, and what can you learn from this?
I can only really speculate as to what happened with Rock Against the TPP’s AMA. But, if pressed, I would say that they made the regretful mistakes of drastically underestimating the knowledge of the community they were engaging, not taking the time to fully prepare for a legitimate discussion about the provisions of the TPP and banking too much on the perceived political leanings and perception of the community as a “friendly environment” for their messaging.
And those are very easy mistakes for your company to make as well when it looks to engage social networks and online communities – whether for activism or sales. If you’re looking to spread your company’s messages, promote your content and sell in social networks, it’s important to learn from the mistakes of others.
Here are the three main lessons you should take away from the Rock Against the TPP AMA:
1) Know your audience and become a part of the community
One of the biggest problems with the Rock Against the TPP AMA was the perceived notion that the community would automatically be interested in – and receptive to – the group’s message.
It became obvious rather quickly that the group didn’t take the time to read previous TPP AMAs and posts on Reddit to better understand the concerns and questions that the Reddit community had about the trade deal. Many of the people involved in the AMA had no contributions to Reddit prior to the AMA. It was apparent that a large percentage of those participating were outsiders in a digital community they didn’t know all that well.
2) Be prepared for a conversation
All interactions with social networks and online communities are conversations. This can be tough for marketers, who are used to one-way conversations where they’re simply talking AT their audience. Since these are true two-way discussions, you need to do more to prepare – a few perfectly-formulated sound-bytes of your key messages simply aren’t going to cut it.
This was one of the other problems with the Rock Against the TPP AMA. It appeared that the participants were prepared with overly-generalized responses to the high-level questions. They were ready to respond to queries about why they disliked the trade deal with easy to digest and truly nasty-sounding phrases, such as “negotiated in secret,” and “undermining democracy,” and, “exporting broken copyright systems.” But they weren’t ready to respond when these claims were challenged or debunked. And they weren’t prepared with any real supporting materials aside from old videos and Websites that were clearly biased.
3) Get your best thought leaders involved
The Rock Against the TPP AMA was a bit of a hot mess. There were about twelve individuals all on the AMA prepared to answer questions – some of which were more active than others – and it became obvious very quickly that some were more prepared for the discussion than others. Unfortunately, Reddit comments can be easily buried if they’re not prompt, and that’s what happened in many cases – the more insightful answers from the organization were often buried beneath less insightful answers and comments from dissenters.
In these instances, it’s important to identify one or two thought leaders who are just that – people who have interesting and intelligent thoughts and opinions and that are knowledgeable on a subject. Once those people are identified, it’s best to give them guidelines (ie: social media policy and media training) and allow them to shine. This keeps the message from getting muddled and ensures that the people responding to criticism, fielding questions and championing your company, product or message are the most qualified to do so.
The Rock Against the TPP AMA wasn’t a disaster. No lives were lost. And I doubt anyone was won to one side of the trade debate or the other because of it. But it surely wasn’t the slam dunk that its organizers had hoped it would be, and there’s a lot to be learned for any marketer, communicator or activist looking to follow in its footsteps.
Engaging communities online is the same as walking up to a group of people in the street. It’s easier to engage them if you have common ground. It’s better to be prepared before you espouse opinions, and it’s best to leave the conversation to those that know what they’re talking about. If you don’t, the next social media fender bender could be yours.