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A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone. (Mario Anzuon/Reuters)
A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone. (Mario Anzuon/Reuters)

Big Idea

Are Twitter and Facebook evil? Add to ...

In our era of interactive social media, the marketing professional's worst nightmare may no longer be a case of seeing his product merely ignored. Consider, for example, this mash-up scenario created from various real-life situations: You're launching a consumer brand. Being new-media savvy, you invest in all the online interactive bells and whistles. You build a Facebook community, launch a Twitter feed. You persuade your CEO to start blogging. You even run a contest inviting people to make their own advertisements and post them to YouTube, with the winner getting a big prize.

Then, problems arise. Maybe it's a product flaw, like a battery that explodes (Dell). Maybe it's personnel-related, as when a judge in your contest turns out to be dating the winner (Nissan Cube). Or maybe people just don't like the way your new product looks (Honda Crosstour). Suddenly, in all those high-traffic channels, the mood on the brand goes sour. Your Facebook is buzzing with complaints. Your tweets are getting reposted with ironic comments attached. Those YouTube ads are making a mockery of your product. Before you know it, half the world is talking about your new product, but they don't seem to like it much.

These are just some of the hard lessons to be learned about social media, where potential returns come with risk, summarized in this warning from Della Smith, the principal of Q Workshops: With social media, "you can do a lot of brand damage very easily."

The perils aren't just based on anecdotal evidence, although Smith says she's seen plenty (CEOs who try to blog before they've learned to open their own e-mail; companies that bail on Face-Tube-Twitter profiles when they discover the real cost of maintaining them). Over at Penn State's Media Effects Laboratory, Dr. Shyam Sundar has been putting science behind the question, Can there be such a thing as too much interactivity? And the data have been saying: yes.

In one of Sundar's first experiments, researchers presented participants with one of three versions of a fictitious political candidate's website, each with different degrees of interactivity. Once participants had finished scrolling and clicking through, they were asked to rate the candidate according to character, competence and likeability. Results showed that the people using the most interactive sites were the most engaged with the content, but also the most likely to be critical of what they read.

In a new batch of experiments this winter, Sundar plans to test the effects of "source-based interactivity"-that is, media channels that allow users to actually contribute content. If Sundar's hypothesis holds true, his subjects will identify more closely with the content they've helped produce, but will also feel compelled to take control of the content. In other words, Twitter, and sites like it, may trigger an urge to subvert.

This would have huge implications for companies using social media. Facebook, YouTube and others are all driven by users' penchant for interactivity. In some cases, opening a brand to a two-way conversation in these channels can work extraordinarily well: Molson's "community blog," as well as various Twitter streams from people within the company, have helped humanize the brand and gathered an online following. The fact that Molson monitors these channels constantly and responds to negative input directly-VPs have been known to wade in from time to time-has allowed the company to sustain a user group that is engaged with its brand message. (It can't hurt that Canadians also like beer.) But science, not to mention hard-won experience, warns against a less-managed approach. Everything that makes social media such a powerful tool for brand awareness also makes it a tempting platform for brand sabotage.

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