You’ve probably heard by now that “your brand is no longer yours.” The assertion’s based on simple math. In the era of blogs, discussion boards, Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 tools, virtually everyone can get online and talk about your company and its offerings. As a result, the amount of information your marketing and PR departments can generate is only a small percentage of the total volume of content on the Internet about your firm.What’s more, if some of the external voices become as popular, or perish the thought, more popular than your official voice, then they’re going to show up high in organic (as opposed to paid) search results. For example, I just typed “Hummer” into Google. The second result is the Wikipedia entry about the vehicle, and the fourth one is a site full of user-submitted photos that are not likely to please the brand’s owner.Every large organization I’m aware of is highly sensitive about its brand, and few are happy about losing or even sharing control over it. They react to the reality of Web 2.0 era in many ways, but most of them amount to some form of trying to exert or reestablish control. Some move their mass media campaigns online to counteract the outside conversation. Some try to influence the influential external voices. Many companies monitor the new online conversations, and also participate in them by setting up official Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts, and so on. More than a few try “sock puppeting” or having someone on the payroll pose as an outsider with nothing but good things to say. This rarely works; Web users are reasonably good at sniffing out inauthentic voices and ignoring or blowing the whistle on them.A few large, brand-sensitive organizations have taken another approach; they’ve accepted their lack of brand control and have actively encouraged insiders to join the online conversation without making any attempt to censor or even guide them. They’ve said, essentially, “You know us really well. Talk about us on the Web. We want the world to hear what you have to say.”Does that sound risky to you? Can you envision dozens of ways in which that approach can go horribly wrong? Me, too. And yet, I keep reading stories like the recent one in the New York Times about MIT’s student bloggers, and they make me appreciate the brilliance of this approach.Five years ago Ben Jones, then the director of communications in MIT’s admissions office, added a single student blog to the office’s web page; there are now eleven of them. Student bloggers are selected after submitting writing samples, and are paid $10 per hour.I was an undergrad at MIT (just a few years before the blog era) and I assure you that most students there would treat the administration’s suggestions about appropriate self-expression about the same way Roger Federer might treat the local club pro’s tips on improving his forehand. The admissions office understands this, and wisely doesn’t try to edit posts or comments.And not all content reflects glowingly on the institution. One blogger complained about problems with the resident advising system, while another wrote that she’s felt several times that she didn’t fit in at MIT. She also went on to say, as the Times story reports, that “MIT is the closest you can get to living on the Internet…IT IS SO TRUE. Love. It. So. Much.”MIT could spend lots of money on their brand and image and never come up with a better advertising tag line than “The closest you can get to living on the Internet.” Indeed, part of what makes it so effective is not just its clarity and cleverness, but the fact that it’s being shouted across the Internet by a current student who is clearly speaking in her own voice. It’s just tremendous marketing; the admissions office couldn’t ask for, or pay for better.Putting student blogs front and center is a mark of MIT’s confidence: confidence in itself as a healthy organization where the pros outweigh the cons, confidence in the members of its community who represent it to the world, and confidence that the people who come to its website will know how to interpret the information they find there. According to the Times article, potential applicants to the university are “less interested in official messages and statistics than in first-hand narratives and direct interaction with current students.” Does that sound at all like your customers?Is your organization as confident as MIT? Are you ready and willing to let more internal voices communicate and shape your brand over time? If not, why not? Is it that you don’t trust your people, or your customers? Is it that you don’t want any negativity at all to appear on your digital properties? Or is it that you’re afraid there might be too much negativity?I don’t think these are unfair questions, or trivial ones. Their answers will reveal not only how your organization sees itself, but also about how it’s responding to a world of reduced control over brands, conversations, and messages. Leading organizations are embracing this trend and, like MIT, they’re giving up tight control even when and where they don’t have to.
Lagging organizations are holding on to the illusion that tight control is still possible.