Sunday, December 28, 2008

Social networking can quickly spin out of control

Wow, no sooner had I provided a brief shout out to Room 214, and what they're doing in social media, did they step in their own pile in social networking circles.

To quickly summarize what 'appears' to have happened, one of their employees contacted the owner of the Tweeter username @room214 asking if he would be willing to give it to Room 214. The user then forwarded the request to Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, asking for advice or help or something. Kevin then provided that advice via a posting on Seesmic:

That's when it all exploded, with various opinionistas providing their generally-negative two cents on Seesmic, Digg, and other media, calling Room 214 corporate bullies and saying they're surprisingly clumsy, naive, or stupid for mishandling a social networking situation. James Clark, Room 214 founder, has now gone on Digg and his own blog to post apologies and to try to diffuse the situation. All of this appears to have happened overnight from Saturday night to Sunday morning on a quiet, holiday weekend.

I say 'appears' because, like everyone else not directly involved in the situation, I really don't have all the facts. But in the social networking world, it's quite common for that ignorance to be glossed over in the postings of the aforementioned opinionistas because that would tend to discount the validity of their posted rants.

Because I don't know the accurate details, I am not going to comment on what happened, or did not happen, between Room 214 and @room214. But what I find fascinating about the broader situation is the speed and severity of the response, and the implications for Room 214.

Out of the blue, Room 214 now has a multifaceted challenge on their hands. Not only do they have a bit of a corporate image problem in the social networking community, but the situation presents potential implications for their corporate clientele (not to mention the employee-relations issues with the unnamed original protagonist). James Clark has gone a long ways toward addressing the community, but it's the client relations that I find interesting.

I presume that Room 214 offers to help their clients establish and execute social networking strategies, such as establishing Facebook fan groups, MySpace pages, Second Life storefronts, or various other, more intricate campaigns. Their website lists among their current clients the Travel Channel, the Denver Broncos, Alltell Wireless, and Rally Software. A recent press release announced that the Travel Channel just renewed their contract with Room 214 for 2009.

What should Room 214 say to their current clients about this situation? Should they say anything? Should they wait for their clients to stumble across it?

What about prospects that they're trying to sign? Presumably, these prospects will do a minimum amount of due diligence on Room 214 and are probably more likely to stumble across it than even their current clients are.

Here are my thoughts. I would turn the whole experience into a good, solid case study. James Clark mentioned in all of his postings the need to act humbly and honestly, and a case study is the logical extension of that. Admit that a problem occurred, analyze why it occurred, what was done to resolve it, and how it can be avoided in the future.

The process of creating this case study is valuable for many reasons:
  1. This whole thing occurred for a reason, through some lack of company policy or poor communication of that policy or something. Fundamentally, the cause needs to be addressed.
  2. The process of analyzing root cause of the problem and trying to prevent similar occurrences will be valuable for the Room 214 team, building teamwork and strengthening the firm.
  3. Nothing would be more believable and powerful as a marketing piece for current and future clients than an autobiographical case study that effectively says: "Social networking is a powerful tool that, if not carefully wielded, can cause considerable damage. We know firsthand, and we're better equipped to help our clients because of that firsthand knowledge."
The company has the opportunity to become stronger for having gone through this situation. At some point, their clients or prospects will discover the whole thing. Room 214 doesn't need to proactively tell clients about it, but should at least be prepared with a thoughtful response based on critical self-examination.
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