Close-Up: Live issue - Learning lessons from the YouTube generation

Brands must be careful how they choose to respond to - or ignore - web users' opinions of them, Kate Nicholson reports.

What would you do if your or your client's brand ended up plastered all over the internet in a series of home-made videos, and you had no control over the content?

Coca-Cola and Mentos had radically different reactions when their products recently combined as the stars of a series of user-generated films that document the explosive results when the mints are added to a bottle of Diet Coke.

For anyone who has missed the films, visit YouTube, MySpace or any number of social network sites and enter "Coke" and "Mentos" in the search bar. You will be presented with a string of films, from simple home experiments creating ten-metre fountains to a two-and-a-half-minute epic featuring 101 bottles of Diet Coke and 523 of the mints orchestrated to resemble a firework display.

Created by Fritz Globe, a professional juggler, and Stephen Voltz, a lawyer, this particular film has attracted an audience in the millions. Filmed at a cost of just $150, it has already netted its creators $16,000 in advertising revenue.

Globe and Voltz posted the film on Revver, a site that allows short ads to be placed at the end of user-generated content.

Last month, Perfetti Van Melle, the owner of the Mentos brand, became an official sponsor of the film. The manufacturer estimates that the value of the positive free publicity associated with the video equates to $10 million of media spend in the US.

Perfetti's reaction is rare, though. Most brands and their advertising agencies are cautious when it comes to embracing this new medium. They are now faced with the fact that, while they still control their advertising output, their perennial inability to control its reception is now an acute concern. The huge growth in social network sites such as MySpace and YouTube means consumer reaction is posted for all to see.

Coca-Cola's reaction to the Mentos phenomenon was corporate and po-faced. The manufacturer has singularly failed to embrace the fountain phenomenon, noting in an official statement that it hopes "people want to drink Diet Coke more than try experiments with it".

In its defence, the brand could be said to have more to lose from a conservative backlash. It is all too easy to imagine Coca-Cola worrying about being accused of making park benches and buses sticky, ruining clothes and generally being too teenage.

Instead, Coca-Cola has taken the step of creating its own site for user-generated content, challenging visitors to make films about a different theme each month, with prizes offered for the best entries.

Its reaction has not been without backlash, though, with YouTube and MySpace members venting spleen at the soft drinks giant's attempts to control what its customers produce and where they post it.

To the smart brands, the inexorable rise of social networks provides a new online resource to gauge public reaction. Why waste money on focus groups when free, genuine opinion is at their fingertips? Shouldn't these brands' agencies be doing more to try to harness this online human tangle?

The answer is unfortunately not a straightforward "yes", because when a brand jumps into a social network, it jumps into a community in which individuals produce content that is largely uncensored. There are no rules. And, more often than not, it exposes itself to an eccentric, but cynical audience.

Damien Blackden, the director of strategic marketing technologies, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at Universal McCann, says relying entirely on social network sites for consumer feedback could be dangerous. "A lot of the content on blogs is at the extreme end of the scale," he argues. "The average blogger is male and young, so you are dealing with a polarised view that will not necessarily provide you with the cross-section of opinion you need. You can take a slice of what is said, but this can't substitute organised consumer feedback."

"Most brands are accustomed to a one-way dialogue in which they broadcast their brand message to a mass audience," Simon Francis, the managing director of OMD Europe, says. "Ninety per cent of their brand content used to be through advertising, whether this was TV, press or direct marketing. However, the arrival of blogs now means the brand effectively lives in the consumers' domain. This is a terrifying prospect for the client."

General Motors learned the dangers of uncontrolled consumer-generated content earlier this year when it invited people to create online advertisements for a new Chevrolet sports utility vehicle. More than 3,000 of the responses attacked GM over its safety record and alleged environmental abuses.

Indeed, once the blogging doors are open, the brand can be ruthlessly exposed to criticism. Companies need to tread carefully when they intrude on conversations or connections, as members of social networks are easily irritated and provoked. And woe betide the brand that attempts to post a rebuttal, explanation or apology without thinking carefully about it first. Such responses often inflame the debate. But ignore, ridicule or deny a situation and it can become immeasurably worse.

Gina Ford, one of the most high-profile and controversial parenting gurus, recently demonstrated how not to respond to online criticism. In an ongoing dispute with Mumsnet, a community mother-run bulletin board that, in the past, she contributed to, Ford insisted that the parenting website's members do not mention her name in any negative context whatsoever. To enforce this, she has threatened to sue, effectively shutting the website down, thus alienating the followers she once had.

Ian Jindal, an e-commerce consultant, explains: "Ford's case is less about being exposed on a blog, but rather taking a heavy-handed approach to 'managing her reputation'. The question in her case is the appropriateness of comment (indeed insults, vitriol and humour too). Mumsnet is being held responsible for the conduct of its members. Rather than address each commentator individually, Ford has taken the easy route of threatening the channel, and the party with the most to lose. Had Ford engaged, logged back on and made some sensible comment, then it is arguable that she would have gained more admiration."

Engage with the dialogue successfully and uncontrolled consumer-generated content can do wonders for a brand's reputation. Take Microsoft and its former employee Robert Scoble. Scoble, who at Microsoft held the official title of "technical evangelist", set up his own website, scobleizer.com. The open and often critical blog has helped humanise Microsoft, with its bullying, monopolistic reputation, and make it appear marginally, but noticeably, less evil to the outside world, especially to its core audience of independent software developers. Allowing its employees to air criticism showed a willingness to acknowledge faults and, perhaps, to change. What is more, Scobel has added huge PR value to Microsoft, because his views were widely taken up by other bloggers.

Jindal adds: "Microsoft sent an immediate message that it wished to communicate more, it was willing to listen and that it tolerated dissent and independence. It was as if Darth Vader cracked a joke."

Last month's craze for Diet Coke fountains provided millions of pounds-worth of exposure to Coca-Cola and Mentos. More importantly, it demonstrated how brands can develop their own subcultures that companies are powerless to control and gave exemplary lessons in how to react. While there is still a place for traditional advertising, with its centrally controlled corporate message, smart brand owners are starting to see the sense in adapting their marketing strategies to this increasingly interactive environment and work with the spontaneous online cacophony.

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