Monday, August 11, 2008

Online engagement - learning from the private sector

A few months ago a PR agency representing the National Australia Bank (NAB) made a series of comments on AFL blogs advertising NAB services.

This incident has been discussed in publications such as Marketing Magazine, NAB spamming: maybe it's time to take dance lessons and Crickey, NAB spams blogs to spruik its SMS banking, which confirmed that the approach was endorsed by the NAB. From the Crikey article,

NAB media relations spokesperson Felicity Glennie-Holmes confirmed that the message was indeed from the bank. The idea to spam the comments sections of private blogs was a recommendation of PR agency Cox+Inall, part of the BWM group, and had been undertaken by Cox+Inall with the bank’s full knowledge and approval.

Cox+Inall had searched for blogs that included AFL coverage and were “well-enough read to attract readers who might be interested in our offer,” said Ms Glennie-Holmes. No-one at NAB or at Cox+Inall had considered approaching blog owners first for permission before posting their promotional messages, she said.

“Blogs are a public forum”, said Ms Glennie-Holmes. NAB and Cox+Inall felt this meant commercial interests could feel free to contribute unsolicited and irrelevant commercial material as comments, placing the onus on blog moderators to reject or delete unwanted comments.

Crikey's article went on to point out that the NAB had a strong anti-spamming message on its website, which did not seem to apply to how the bank chose to engage with others.

The incident has created a great deal of concern across the blogging community and a number of people I have spoken have lowered their view of the NAB.

An example of the backlash is this Youtube video looking at how NAB would feel if people came onto NAB property to advertise their own services. It's cheap and grainy - but the point is clear, respect the rights of others in their own spaces.

Bloggers have also contacted NAB directly to complain about this incident and a recorded interview was published online, as reported by Better Communications Results, StewArtMedia and NAB’s comment spam.

What can be learnt from this
I believe there are a couple of things communications professionals can learn from the NAB's experience.

Understand the channel and medium before engaging
The view of the NAB was that blogs were public forums, available for commercial comment.
In this case I feel that the NAB did not initially build a strong understanding of the online channel and consider how the medium of blogs actually function.

While blogs are available publicly, they are usually owned by a single individual and operated in a highly personal way. Just as people would take offense if an advertiser came into their home and started talking to their family and friends about a commercial offering, blog owners are proprietory about their blogs and need to be approached and engaged in an appropriate way.

This applies equally for an situation where an organisation engages with someone else's online property - be it a blog, forum or chatroom.

It is important for the organisation to take the time to understand the appropriate ground rules for the venue, consult appropriately and engage with the full agreement of the site operator.

Respect others
Respecting others is part of the social 'glue' that holds civilisation together. By stepping into someone's space and shouting a message an organisation, or individual, can be demonstrating a lack of respect.

While the internet is a public service, and blogs and forums publicly accessible, they still have rules of engagement - just like a public event.

An organisation seeking to engage within the online medium needs to spend the time observing to understand the social rules and codes of conduct before diving in.

This demonstrates respect for others and demonstrably changes the reception the organisation will receive.

Online engagement must add value
In this case the NAB posted commercial messages unlinked to the discussions taking place in the blog.

There did not appear to be any planning or thought around building credibility with the audience or adding value with the comments.

For organisations engaging online it is not sufficient to rely on the branding and established reputation in other mediums. Organisations need to think about what they bring to the forum or blog and what value they add to the conversation.

An organisation that provides adds value to the online conversation (speaking with), rather than advertising (speaking to) will build credibility and gain opportunities to communicate its message in more engaging ways - thereby being more successful.

Use an honest voice
In the NAB incident, a PR agency posted the comments - and they were posted anonymously, not as an official representation of the NAB.

When engaging online if you want to be taken seriously as an organisation you must represent yourself as who you are. Use an honest and real voice, advertising agencies can only take you so far, organisations will achieve far greater credibility and cut through if it is an actual representative of the organisation making the posts, using their true voice (not pre-processed PR statements).

This is very hard for organisations to understand, given the formal nature of engagement in other mediums - the best example is to think of the online channel as talkback radio and engage accordingly.

In conclusion
Thre's a lot of material available in print and online discussing the right and wrong approaches to online engagement. Most of it follows the same general theme as my points above, understand the medium, be respectful of others, add value to the conversation and use an honest voice.

Take advantage of this when developing your online engagement strategy and you'll avoid many of the mistakes organisations first face when making a decision to use the online channel actively.

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