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The Sweet Smell of Social Media Success - and the Funk of Failure

The Sweet Smell of Social Media Success - and the Funk of Failure

This week was a lesson for businesses in how to do social media right as well as in the perils of ignoring it altogether. Old Spice's stunt, which used YouTube and Twitter to slap together on-the-spot video shorts starring its smooth-talking spokesman -- hit a viral marketing home run. Meanwhile, Apple gave customers nothing but a noseful of condescension, which it may finally fix with its conference Friday.

By Renay San Miguel
07/16/10 5:00 AM PT

How's this for tying together Old Spice's winning social media strategy and Apple's current iPhone problems: While the cologne and deodorant company is ending the week smelling like a rose, Steve Jobs' tech colossus is in danger of stinking up the joint.

Follow along with me as I attempt to marry the two top tech stories of the past few days. Both involve the Internet, media relations/marketing strategies, and consumers drunk with the newfound power that social media/Web video imparts upon them. Both stories have traveled at light-speed from the Web-bound tech blogger media to mainstream venues like network morning shows and late-night monologues. And both show how narrow the distance truly is in 2010 between the public and the product.

What Smells Great

First, the success story:

Maybe someone will find a way to measure just how much office productivity fell off a cliff earlier this week when Old Spice began its campaign involving its sexier-than-thou commercial spokesman, Isaiah Mustafa, soliciting questions on the company's Twitter feed and then (almost immediately) answering them. You've seen his TV spots, no doubt: Mustafa's always-shirtless character, who probably did just walk off the cover of a Harlequin romance, strolling from one manly-man situation to another in the space of 30 seconds, usually while dressed in a bath towel. "Hello ladies," he croons. "Does your man look like me? No. Can he smell like me? Should he use Old Spice Body Wash? I don't know. Do you like the smell of adventure? Do you want a man who smells like he can bake you a gourmet cake in the dream kitchen he built with his own hands? Of course you do." And so on. The commercials' mix of irony and whimsy, helped along by Mustafa's comic timing, blows the poor 1960s-'70s Old Spice boat captain spokesmodel right off the starboard bow.

But those are TV commercials, with measurable ratings and returns on investment. Old Spice's advertising team, Wieden+Kennedy, took the next step into relatively uncharted social media territory with its Twitter campaign. The company shrewdly targeted celebrities, media types and Web influentials with lots o'followers, but also included average folks who put some very creative questions to the Old Spice Guy.

Then Mustafa and his crew of writers, videographers and prop suppliers quickly dashed off nearly 200 humorous video responses, most no longer than 45 seconds, and placed them on the Old Spice YouTube channel. The celebs and influentials, of course, immediately retweeted the links to these videos, and one of the top viral marketing campaigns ever was set in motion. The resulting downtime experienced on YouTube by those seeking out the videos provided real-time evidence of their popularity and effectiveness.

A lot of my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds/bookmarks are now populated by marketing/social media analysts and mavens. The word "brilliant" was used an awful lot in their critiques of the Old Spice campaign. Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media provided one of the best deconstructions of it: Her blog post -- with the killer headline "Old Spice: The Man Your Content Could Smell Like" -- details just how much product awareness love and magic was bestowed on the company's brand thanks to the campaign. And yet a few of her commenters were still looking at things from a 20th-century perspective: "How does it translate into sales and ROI? My guess, the ROI won't be worth it," wrote one. "What's the incentive? What reason do people have to switch (deodorants)?" asked another.

I'll take a stab at answering: Social media for the moment isn't really about traditional metrics; those are on the way, no doubt, but right now it's more about customer engagement and awareness -- the opportunity for consumers to talk directly to the Old Spice Guy, and have him talk directly to them.

The distance between company and customer got that much closer, with all the goodwill -- and down-the-line potential for sales -- that comes along for the ride (probably on a white horse or a motorcycle, key props for Mustafa in previous commercials). Would the marketing professional naysayers turn down a chance to have a client's brand talked about all over the Internet -- not to mention ABC's "Good Morning America" -- just because they couldn't give the client an ROI figure?

What Reeks

Which brings us to Apple, and an iPhone 4 that for all I know has many of the same people praising Old Spice trashing Cupertino for its latest smartphone and its defective antenna. The talk in the technosphere/blogosphere has obviously been mostly negative for Apple, thanks to the ham-fisted way the company has responded to the initial reports of dropped calls. Telling people that they're holding the phone the wrong way -- or that they should just go back to their nearest Apple Store and buy yet another accessory to help with reception -- smells like condescension, not cologne. Later, some tech blogs reported that Apple was deleting message threads that mentioned Consumer Reports' refusal to recommend the iPhone 4 due to what it called "hardware problems" (not software issues, as Apple had originally stated).

I've always been a tad surprised that Apple, makers of computers and smartphones that enable social media lovers and bloggers everywhere, doesn't seem to understand the fundamental lessons of the new media universe. To paraphrase Patti Smith, people have the power, and more of it nowadays. Average users and tech writers/analysts combined to make the Old Spice Guy a big story. They are joining forces to pile on Apple, fanboys being a notable exception.

But it's been the tech blogs that have questioned Apple's handling of its iPhone 4 issues, along with mainstream media outlets that follow those technosphere rumblings and the staffs of talk show hosts like David Letterman, who aired the "Top 10 Signs You've Purchased a Bad iPhone" list earlier this week (No. 4: Looks, smells and tastes like a Pop-Tart.)

Yet Apple may be realizing that it's not too late. Friday's press conference may go a long way toward reversing the PR damage, and the news that Apple's top iOS executive, Scott Forstall, has opened up a Twitter account may be the start of a Dell-type realization that Web 2.0 tools can indeed be your company's friends. Apple has a fan base that needs reassurance that the company isn't turning into Microsoft from the 1990s; smart use of new media can help with that goal.

As of this writing, we're still waiting for the first tweet from @forstall, but I'm guessing after Friday's press event that will quickly change. Actually, it had better change, or else the Twitterati will let Apple have it. If there's one thing that Web users can sniff out faster than the scent of Old Spice Body Wash, it's the smell of social media cheesiness and insincerity from a major tech company.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.


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