the frequency a kenny chung blog

Amazon purchased the deal site, which was in itself a pretty big deal (figuratively and literally). Right after the acquisition was finalized and made public, Woot inserted a line in one of their item descriptions about how the Associated Press owed them money for quoting Woot CEO Matt Rutledge. Woot copywriters (and whoever approved it) were poking fun at the ludicrous pricing model the AP implemented months ago to battle Google News and to monetize aggregator sites (I wrote a post about it in August 2009 titled “Seriously, Associated Press?“).

Now, I wish this were the end of the story. But it wasn’t, and I’m torn on how I feel about what happened next. AP released an oh-so-serious statement in response to Woot’s joke, saying they quoted Rutledge with permission and weren’t to be held to any quote pricing. Oh, and they also pulled the oil spill card in doing so.

So, on the one hand, this made for a very entertaining Internet battle, with bloggers and social media addicts tearing the AP apart for their overreaction. Reddit had some fun coverage about the issue as well.

However, as a student of Mass Communication, it made me a bit sad (and embarrassed) to see how poorly handled the situation was, not to mention how it showed desperation on the part of AP to cling onto what dignity it had left.

Oh, and there are also the issues of shoddy journalism and utter Public Relations fail. Anybody could do a simple Google search on Woot to discover that the nature of their editorial content is facetious at worst and lighthearted ribbing at best. To turn a joke into a serious matter was a huge communication mistake, and AP pretty much openly invited the criticisms of Woot loyalists and people who were just plain Internet savvier than the AP.

This was potentially an excellent PR opportunity for AP to set themselves apart from the rest of the struggling online news industry. Sure, they could have dismissed Woot’s allegation altogether or called shenanigans. But they could have also played along. The AP could have written an equally silly response to Woot to show that they have a sense of humor and “get” how the Internet works.

But alas, it was a poorly mishandled Mass Comm and PR trainwreck.

Locusts are the farmers’ plague. They swarm together and once they create groups, they multiple quickly. Left to their own devices, they can decimate entire crop fields. Their impact has been so severe that pesticides are designed specifically for locust population control.

But studies as recent as 2009 have shown that when locusts swarm together, serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation) is released in relatively great quantities. If human biochemistry (and emotional constructs) apply, then one could even infer that locusts become happy when they are in large groups (by that same token, they could also just be very, very angry…).

I compare locusts to social media users because of similar core behaviors. Both can amass in great numbers to share a common sentiment, but both can also create irreparable damage if uncontrolled. As I mentioned in last month’s blog post about the role of psychology is social media branding, knowing the opinions of others greatly affects our own behaviors. Groupthink plays a large role in why people downvote threads in Reddit, how the RickRoll became a meme, and how brands are made or broken in the social media space.

Consider the recent viral hit of the fake BP Global PR Twitter account. Obviously, there are tons of people who are more than angry about the oil spill and how BP has handled it. But give people a platform to complain about it, make it funny, and soon you’ll have thousands of people nodding in agreement. BP never stood a chance.

Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (credit Jose Acosta)
Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (Credit: Jose Acosta/AP)

So how can you leverage swarms to improve your social media presence? The short answer is you can’t always. The Internet has opened the floodgates of uncensored, unfiltered opinion, and rarely does any one entity have control of the message anymore (see also: the Streisand effect).

Now, onto the long answer. Should companies treat social media users like locusts? In some regards, yes. Companies and individuals have to take preemptive steps, instead of being reactive to negative criticism. Don’t ignore complaints (because there are a ton of websites dedicated to reviewing customer service). Acknowledge problems and propose solutions. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Be as transparent as possible, because we live in the Information Age, where anybody can confirm or deny any claim with a few simple clicks.

Branding is no longer limited to the commercials you see or word of mouth from real-life friends. Companies need to think with this mindset or else they’ll fall victim to and be decimated by a swarm of social media locusts.

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