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When Bloggers Attack...

"If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool." - Carl Jung

I'm bothered by something.  Even though I write for Iowabiz, I generally do not read it as carefully as I probably should... at least until this week.  Todd Razor wrote a great piece on a new marketing approach by Hubbell Realty here in town.  To help sell a new community of brownstones, they created a fictional character named Hailey Brownstone.  She has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  She has videos on Youtube and a webpage.  There are disclaimers stating she is not real, although they may not be as obvious as some would like.

Drew McLellan and Andy Drish jumped on them for not being authentic and for trying to deceive customers.  Before weighing in, I talked to the Marketing Director at Hubbell Realty, who informed me this was their most effective ad campaign ever.  They've already sold two brownstones, one of their other communities wants Hubbell to create a Hailey character for them, they are on target for one of their best Decembers ever, and another realty company in town is already copying them with the creation of their own character.

After going back and forth with me and others on Iowabiz, Drew took the argument to his own site.  What happened next can best be described as the blogospheric equivalent of the carnivore attack on Wild Kingdom.  Most commenters viciously attacked Hubbell, simply based on the fact they didn't like the videos.  They weren't provided with the facts about how effective the approach has been.  Drew has yet to produce one Des Moines real estate customer who has actually felt deceived.  I've been surprised at who commented.  People like Connie Reece and Brad Shorr are those I not only respect, but genuinely like (and their comments were tame compared to most).  Except for Drew, most involved have no vested interest in Des Moines and have never heard of Hubbell Realty until now.  Yet it seems some have just jumped on the bandwagon because an opinion can be given without accountability.  Nothing illegal has been done in this marketing approach; people just want to criticize because they wouldn't have done it that way.

My question is, where is the blogospheric integrity?  I remember listening to Anita Bruzzese at SOBCon back in May, hearing her emphasize the importance of demonstrating a high level of journalistic integrity in our blogs and comments, checking our facts, and viewing all sides of an issue before commenting.  I'm not seeing this here.  In an era where the real estate market is tanking on all sides and our economy is generally shaky, I'm not inclined to attack a company for doing something successfully.  To do otherwise demonstrates the same lack of understanding demonstrated in the Jung quote above.  In my comments, I asked the question on Iowabiz whether social media could afford to reach the land of sacred cows.  In a world of Madoff, Blagojevich, and Big Three Bailouts, there are plenty of things that deserve our angst-ridden criticism.  A company successfully employing innovation isn't one of them.

I've been enjoying the essays of Peggy Noonan recently.  She's been talking a lot about the need for grace in our society.  At this season of Christmas, at this time when we need desperately to see the positive among a field of negativity, at the cusp of a new era of leadership and hope, I would think some of us should pause before we comment and think about what grace really means... to us personally and as a community.

What do you think?  Too much righteous indignation on my part?  Maybe.  I have no vested interest in Hubbell other than sharing a community with them.  I've had a couple of students from there, but I would probably feel the same way if Iowa Realty or JDR Group were being attacked.  I guess I'd like to know what YOU think.  Are they just registering an opinion, or did this one go too far?  Do we have a responsibility to our stakeholders to look at all sides of an issue before we blog or comment?  As always, I admit I may be wrong.  This one just isn't sitting well in my gut.  I guess I'm just feeling a little disappointed in some of my blogging compadres right now.  I'll get over it.  To do otherwise would be a lack of the same grace I've just been talking about.

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Comments

Jay

Great post Tim. Your post goes directly to the heart of something that's been weighing on my mind since George W Bush was elected President in 2000.

WARNING!! The following comments make no endorsement of any political candidate or party. They are strictly my observations, and I'll try to leave politics out of it (wish me luck).

Shortly after Bush The Younger was elected, many people felt that he did not legitimately earn the Presidency. Now where the motivation of those people lies, i can't answer to that. Those people used everything in their power (including the blogosphere) to try to impugn everything that Bush attempted to do. I never heard the level of discourse about politics in our country sink to such a horrid low. Bloggers on both sides of the political divide attacked each other and their respective opposing parties' leaders out of hand, not based on much in fact other than they just wanted to say outrageous things.

Now...does this mean that certain politicians are right and certain ones are wrong? I'll keep that to myself. The issue I'm attacking here is not politicians, but our reaction to them and how we wind up treating each other when we can hide behind the mask of cyberspace. Sometimes, the reaction we get from what we post in cyberspace can cause us to lose face in a public situation.

I have posted before and our Fearless Leader on this site and those who have seen my comments before know that I am a high school mathematics teacher. I'm currently enrolled in graduate school, and just completed a class where I had to use an online forum as part of the grading structure. During the early stages of the class, three of our class members (including myself) were "called out" in front of the entire class by the professor for expressing opinions about the book that were not in line with what the professor wanted. Therefore, this particular professor got exactly what he wanted. He wanted a class of people that saw things his way and his way alone. And, if you didn't agree with him, then be prepared to face the consequences of being "called out" in front of your classmates.

My ultimate revenge was one of the last posts I did, where I discussed the educational value of the topic we were studying by using an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" as my example.

Isn't living well the best revenge?

Peace be with all of you during the holiday season. I hope all of Tim's friends and colleagues who read this blog have a healthy and prosperous 2009. And as for Fearless Leader himself, thanks for being a good man and a good friend. We're all better people for what you do here.

Pete Jones

Interesting post Tim.

I can see each side, and having not read the comments you mentioned, I can only assume most are upset that Hubbell decided to "use" the blogosphere and social media to their advantage. Creating a "person," using a Facebook/Twitter account, and acting like the person is real sort of feels like cheating or abusing the rights given to all of us by the social media platform. I bet they are worried that this trend will continue and it will overwhelm these platforms with fake people and take away the credibility of the platforms.

On the other hand, Hubbell has created a great marketing scheme and they are working to sell their product, which is very difficult in this day in time.

I guess I would lean on the fact, as you did, that the scheme has been successful and others in the industry are working to emulate it. Duplication is the sincerest form of flattery, and if others like the marketing scheme that much, can it really be wrong?

Phil Gerbyshak

Interesting conversation Tim. I can see a few sides that have good points:

1) Authenticity equals realness. Whether you disclose that you're a "real person" or not doesn't matter. Authentic people are real people. If you make up a person, you aren't being authentic, you're being a traditional marketer.

2) Success equals success. If you do something that works, folks will copy it. Good for this firm for creating a product worth copying that worked.

3) Grace and forgiveness is needed. How hard to beat a horse? Until it's dead? Sounds like this one should be dead, but folks keep beating it.

I tend to agree with Pete that though this one attempt was popular that future campaigns will overwhelm the social networks with fake people. I like (and TRUST) real people far more than any fake person a marketing firm can create.

That being said, I won't pile on, and just wish good luck to Hubbell as they definitely stirred up a crapstorm with this tactic.

Douglas Karr

There is such an incredible divide between bloggers who blog about businesses than those who blog FOR business. I have to work against the misinformation on a daily basis. People look to marketing blogs and assume those as best practices for actually selling on the web.

The bloggers you mentioned above are friends and colleagues whom I have much respect for. However, the purpose of their blogs are for publicity, authority, and advertising revenue - not for selling a product or service.

We track success in business by response rates and conversions - not by opinions of other people on the Internet. It's unfortunate that marketing bloggers don't pay attention to what WORKS rather than what they'd like would work.

I'm all for the warm and cozy words like transparency and engagement, too... but my clients' success is not gauged by awards, or compliments from bloggers - it's measured by how many inbound marketing leads they obtained through their social media strategy!

Great post!

Drew McLellan

Tim -- if you read the comments -- no one is hoping Hubbell doesn't have success. They are just wishing they would have done it honestly.

What your post doesn't reveal is that the Hubbell people were listening and learning. They didn't get pouty or storm off -- they listened and demonstrated they were listening by changing. Huge props to them for being that open.

They reached out to several of the commenters on both IowaBiz and my blog and asked more questions. They have made changes to their campaign (more clearly identifying that Hailey is not a real person etc.).

Your post also doesn't talk about the fact that both Andy and I (the ones, in your eyes who "jumped" on Hubbell) have had very cordial conversations and offered other suggestions and help with the Hubbell folks.

That's the importance of this conversation. You can have results AND do it properly. Social media allows for do overs and fixes.

Now...Hubbell can enjoy their success and not worry that somewhere along the way, they're going to lose that equity because they didn't know the rules and their audience.

Hopefully, whichever other realty company that is about to copy Hubbell was also listening and learning.

One of the challenges in social media is that there is no regulating body. No FCC or other gov't entity imposing and enforcing rules. So the rules are self learned...from the environment in which you enter.

This whole conversation, for most people, has been about tactics and the medium. I'm not sure why it got personal for you but I'm sorry if you were somehow offended by the conversation and discussion.

All good things came from this.

~ Hubbell made their campaign better and reduced their risks of backlash.
~ People all over the blogosphere now have a best practices/case study on how to handle a fictitious persona
~ IowaBiz has been introduced to more readers than ever before
~ Hubbell got incredible buzz and views on their campaign
~ New relationships were formed as a result of the conversations had

All in all....that's the power of social media. Everyone is better for the conversation.

Drew

Connie Reece

Hi, Tim. Glad to see your post on the issue. I agree that too many people are eager to jump on marketers and pummel them without knowing all the facts--and grace is most definitely something we need a TON more of in the blogosphere. (I love Noonan's work too, btw.)

Even knowing the campaign is successful, I'm not sure I would change my underlying reason for calling it a faux pas: personas do not work in social media. Evidently Hubbell had been a lot more open about the fact in other forums, and we only saw one piece of the campaign--but that's part of the issue. With the way social media spreads, you can't assume that people will recognize that the spokesperson is actually a fictional persona.

Kudos to Hubbell for realizing that they needed different channels and different messaging to reach their target market of upscale young professionals. Also glad to hear from Drew that Hubbell was listening and open to change.

Timothy Johnson

Jay, Pete, Douglas, and Phil - great, balanced commentary - all of you. Thanks for commenting.

Drew - I dunno, comments like "lame" and "stupid" and "strange" (all of which went unchecked) make me think some of your readers just like to call out things without the constructive criticism. Yes, there were many that were tamer, but the comments on your blog gave the appearance of a "pile on" based on the 46 comments that appeared. Liz Strauss always challenges us to "be nice" but I wasn't really seeing that among your readers.

I'm sure the folks at Hubbell have learned much and adjusted much, except that dialogue isn't mentioned on your blog, so I'm not sure how I was supposed to know it occurred.

Was it personal for me? No more than it was for you. As one who teaches creativity, I see 30 professionals at the beginning of each semester who want to cling to the safety of the status quo. Their biggest fear is what just happened here this week: having their innovation called out publicly and negatively. Hence, I will probably see the fall-out of this some time. As I said over on Iowabiz, I'd rather focus on what's working than someone's opinion of what should work.

You mention social media has no governing body, so I guess that's the other thing I'm taking issue with: who decides that a fake persona is bad? Who defines what "authenticity" and "transperency" are? Douglas Karr's arguments above really speak for themselves. It has appeared to me this entire debate has been about something arbitrarily decided.

You're right... there are a lot of positives coming out of this. The best one is that you and I have a relationship deep enough we can disagree agreeably and remain friends. That's social media done right.

Jay

One more thing to think about for everyone's benefit, is the case of Laurie Drew. She created a fake myspace character that had fatal consequences for a teenager near St Louis who hanged herself over comments made by the fake boy that was created by Laurie Drew. A Los Angeles jury recently convicted Drew on some charges related to the situation.

This also reminds me a bit of the WKRP In Cincinnati episode when Bailey (portrayed by Jan Smithers) created a profile of a needy child who did not exist in order to gain sympathy for a local charity. Eventually she went on the air and made her mea culpa, but the "damage" had already been done.

Here's hoping that what people do in cyberspace is for the powers of good.

Brad Shorr

Hi Timothy, A very interesting post and discussion, which I am glad to have read because it filled in some blanks. If the campaign is bearing fruit and not putting off prospective customers, then it really doesn't matter so much what we all think. Personally, I am accustomed to interacting with real people in social media. I hope the day doesn't come when I have to wonder whether I'm conversing with a person or a persona. Right or wrong, good or bad, I like to know who I'm dealing with. However, I acknowledge that a vast segment of the population isn't deeply involved in social media, and a good number of people may not care about the authenticity of a spokesperson. One thing I'm very interested to see is how this public review of Hubbell's campaign affects it. Will all this attention lead to more sales or fewer?

Timothy Johnson

Hi Brad and Connie - thanks for dropping by and further clarifying your comments.

There's a saying that "those who say it can't be done should get out of the way of those already doing it" - seems to be the case here. A lot of chatter on the internet... as Brad and Douglas pointed out... results trump opinions any day of the week.

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