Beyond PR

Feb 08, 2011

Communicating in context – online and off

Creating contextual continuity between online promotions, off-line advertising and real-life sales and service staff is a challenge that can trip up small businesses and big brands.  At the very least, disconnects between promotions and in-store experience result in poor customer experiences.  And at the worst, gaffes on the national stage can take on a life of their own in social channels, and create real problems for a brand.    I’d like to look at a couple examples today, and think about what communicators can do to guard against the gaps in messaging that can sink a campaign.

A local retailer

A few weeks ago, I spotted a great looking offer from a local retailer in my Facebook news feed.  The post said, simply, that if a Facebook Fan knew the secret password (which they gave in that post) then they would get 40% off any one item in the store. Well, that seemed like a pretty good deal, but before getting in the car, I called the store to check and make sure I had interpreted the post correctly.  I was told I had, so I hopped in the car.

However, upon arrival at the counter, with the secret password at the ready, I was informed that no, the deal wasn’t 40% off for Facebook Fans with the password.  The deal was that as a Facebook Fan with the password, I was entitled to spin a wheel, which offered a variety of deals and discounts, including one shot at getting up to 40% off one item. Annoyed, because I had done my homework, I pulled out my iPhone, and showed them the Facebook post, which didn’t refer to any other terms, conditions or offer any type of fine print.

A chat with the store owner revealed part of the problem. She assumed I had seen earlier Facebook posts about the special “Wheeling and Dealing” weekend, featuring all sorts of deals and contests based upon that spinning wheel.    Ah ha.  There it was.  I hadn’t seen those other posts.  I showed her my Facebook news feed, and we scrolled through it.  The only post from the retailer that made it into the news feed was the one I had seen – because a slew of others had liked and commented upon it.   (I ended up giving her a primer on how Facebook works, and helped her correct her promotions.  She gave me the 40% off.  We both ended up happy.)

The fact is, messages distributed by social channels are subject to fragmentation.  Facebook fans may or may not see all of your posts.  Tweets may append or distort true intent.  The challenge for communicators is how to convey the big picture in this fractured environment.


We saw another related situation this weekend.  Groupon took a lot of heat for a TV ad placed during the Super Bowl which appeared to make light of the people of Tibet and their tenuous political and cultural situations.   The underlying truth is that Groupon has serious chops in social activism – the company grew from a cause-based web site called The Point. And, importantly, Groupon’s Save The Money program is raising funds and matching donations to four different groups, including the Tibet Fund.

Unfortunately, the television ad that ran during what ended up being the highest rated US TV show ever failed to reveal Groupon’s worthy efforts or promote the Save The Money program. Viewers who were familiar with the company’s efforts may have chuckled at the ad.  However, the majority of people watching the ad didn’t view it in that context, and they were offended.

Creating contextual continuity
So the question in my mind – whether you’re a small business using Facebook to promote a sale, or you’re a big brand splurging on a Super Bowl ad buy – is this:  How can communicators close the loop between social media and real-life promotion, ensuring a continuity of context between fractured messages?   A few practices come to mind:

1)      All messaging should be able to stand alone, conveying key points and calls to action. Simply put, you can’t rely upon other communications to provide needed context.  And you should never assume your audience has seen other related messages.

2)      Keep variables to a minimum.  We’re playing a version of the childhood game “Telephone” – you know, the one where kids sit in a circle, repeating a message to each other, which invariably becomes wildly distorted by the time the last kid hears it.  When we rely upon word-of-mouth, Twitter and other means of viral distribution of messages, the original message must be clear and simple.

3)      Speaking of calls to action, a unified and consistent call to action that is recognizable will be more memorable to people who may see a variety of messages from your organization.

4)      If the offer requires fine print, communicate it.  At the very least, indicate that terms and conditions apply, and include a link to the details on any landing pages or other messages that are distributed.

5)      Be sure your real-life customer service teams are exquisitely well informed of the deals and specials you’re offering.  Ideally, allow them to see exactly what is being communicated to customers.

6)   When in doubt, don’t use politics, race, sex and religion as a gimmick in a campaign.

What advice can you share for coordinating messages between social media, traditional media and real-life?

Authored by Sarah Skerik (@sarahskerik), VP social media, PR Newswire.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mwichary.

1 Comments on Blog Post Title

Dee Rambeau 18:47 EST on Feb 8, 2011

Sarah, these are great examples of the (new) adage that “once you put it out there…it’s out there.” You can apologize and you can take it back and you can argue with the customer but once you’ve done that, you’ve already lost your credibility. Groupon is probably popular enough to take a hit like that…but some local retailer could literally cause their own business to dry up if someone really wanted to punish them for the example you put forth. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Mean what you say. Say it clearly. Dee

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