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May 14, 2012
The al-Qaeda Social Media Model
Consumers have always been brand stakeholders. People have always liked, shared, interacted with, and promoted brands they find useful or identify with. In the olden days, brand advocacy was done face-to-face or over the phone at a small, disconnected scale. Brand marketers had the illusion of control. They believed that they set the brand agenda and directed the brand evolution. Social media changed all that.

Social media holds up a mirror to the brand, asking, “Who are you and what do you stand for?” says Cindy Gallop. More importantly, social media gives consumers a direct stake in the evolution of a brand. Two-way conversation invites consumers into dialog and, in June Cohen’s view, delivered at Mashable Connect, “lets others grab onto it and lets others run with it … a band without followers is just a lame idea.” The co-creation of a brand promises to add more real-time intelligence, infuse more real emotion, and “create collaboration and collective buy-in between founders, stewards, fans and advocates.”  

“Imagine,” June wonders, drawing on the lessons from the development of the TED brand, “if brand fans and advocates were enrolled and empowered to develop messages and engagement programs versus a handful of marketers sitting in a dark room worrying about how to control the brand and stave off unintended consequences?” The possibilities for openness, broad scale sharing, harnessing genuine enthusiasm and loyalty, or mobilizing a larger brand community multiply.

The trade-offs are control for conversation and centralization for dispersion.

The new distributed branding model might be taken directly from the al-Qaeda playbook; enroll and mobilize discrete groups of brand advocates to develop relationships and conversations in their own way, targeted to their own niches with an overarching common goal.

Let loose the reins and enable the true believers to spread the word on your behalf in their own time and way. Accept the idea that there are many paths to goodness and let them play out. Understand the brand’s marketing program as the backbone of an otherwise amorphous multi-headed creature that will make its way into the culture virally, carrying and advancing the brand message. Accept the notion that marketers do not have a monopoly on good ideas.

Should you be brave enough to countenance al-Qaeda-like brand governance, use June Cohen’s six rules of the road to “become more of a brand steward and less of a brand dictator” while keeping in loose touch with your disconnected cells of fervent followers.

1. Feed the hunger for participation. People want to belong and contribute, especially people who use and care for your brand. Let them join up and figure how best to participate on their own terms.

2. Encourage sharing and viral connections. Let the word spread organically. More sharing = more advocacy = deeper brand relationships.

3. Listen to users. They know the brand as well or better than you. They know where you should go, what you should do next, and how you should frame the message. Users can be your brand compass. Mine their ideas. Co-create the brand.

4. Reach everywhere. Embrace channels, platforms, devices, and changing media habits. Let the word go out in whatever form and to whatever device it naturally reaches. Let the brand advocates run with the ball. Accept adaptation and experimentation and embrace the ideas that work best.

5. Tell a good story. Without strong storytelling, your brand will die of loneliness. Your story must be distinctive enough to break through the clutter. Arm your advocates with content that they can adapt and share in a variety of contexts.

6. Provide clear strict guidelines. Enforce them. Develop repercussions for those who break the rules or violate the brand’s core tenets. Regulate advocate activities one at a time.

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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