This piece was originally
published in Adweek
on June 20, 2019
In the modern information ecosystem, seemingly anyone can hijack the public’s attention and manufacture influence on social media.
From rabid fans to activists to anonymous trolls, networks of small but hyperactive online subcultures are using the tools of modern marketing to run guerilla communications campaigns that shape public opinion. Their motivations vary from fandom to ideological activism to, in many cases, simply profit. Just as political influence operations are eroding faith in our democratic institutions, when these groups target corporations, it jeopardizes trust in the brand and its values.
Brands are targets of opportunity in this war for attention and influence and must adapt to this new adversarial social media environment.
The internet doesn’t work like people think it does
Traditionally, social media is treated like a giant cocktail party, where casual conversations in small groups organically grow into the occasional public fascination. In reality, the most vocal, passionate, highly active users are the tastemakers of the internet. Their obsession drives engagement, which in turn creates virality and influence.
Groups of these highly active users form around subcultures like online gaming, mommy blogging or political activism. They’ve learned that by targeting and coordinating their messaging and engagement—much like a marketing campaign—they can manufacture virality and shape public opinion for or against whatever they want.
When these subcultures mobilize, brands are often unknowingly caught in the crosshairs as the group’s guerilla social media campaign springs into action, organizing boycotts, spreading petitions and forcing topics to trend on Facebook and Twitter.
We call these groups Internet factions. They’re the undercurrents of the internet and they’re the hidden forces shaping public conversation.
The tactics used against brands
When factions are provoked, by progressive brand narratives, social stances, and negative press, they mobilize to shape conversation about an issue using the same tactics as marketers.
For example, Nike’s powerful Just Do It campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick garnered backlash from factions that disagreed with Kaepernick’s message of social justice. In response, these adversarial factions created a campaign of their own, creating fake coupons and claiming that Nike was offering discounts specifically for people of color. It then publicized the coupon using coordinated networks of social media accounts.
These networks often directly target real, influential social media users who unwittingly amplified the message, fooled into believing it was legitimate. Using these tactics, this disingenuous campaign was able to reach a mainstream audience, eroding Nike’s brand integrity by undermining its authenticity with the audience it was trying to reach.
Often the influencers targeted by adversarial campaigns are the same influencers that have large engaged audiences and that brands collaborate with to connect with new audiences. Factions looking to propagate their narratives use targeting tactics to spam influencer accounts in the hopes that they will share a message to their followers. A brand can quickly come under fire when an influencer is manipulated into sharing content or provoked into an exchange that isn’t consistent with your brand’s values.
These tactics aren’t limited to social media platforms. Review sites like Yelp, Google and Rotten Tomatoes, as well as ecommerce product reviews rely on user generated content to build brand equity. But, like any open platform, these sites are also vulnerable to manipulation.
Frequently factions launch campaigns to create the false impression that a product or service is unpopular to erode brand integrity. This tactic, called “review bombing,” isn’t only designed to manipulate the targeted product, but also to reduce trust in the associated brand. Factions believe that if they undermine a brand with values they oppose, they reduce public support for the values themselves. The entertainment, retail and luxury goods industries are frequent targets for this type of activity.
Take back control of your brand
Social media is an adversarial environment, governed by factions who fight for the public’s attention and can mobilize to undermine brand integrity, and ultimately your loyal consumers.
Forward-thinking brands must factor these new dynamics into their strategy and get ahead of the problem by detecting coordinated campaigns and their influence on narratives that matter to your brand. Responsible communications leaders need to know what’s real and what isn’t online.