Lately I’ve been involved in discussions about companies who don’t want their brands to engage with consumers online. Most PR practitioners agree that there can be legitimate reasons for a business to avoid social media – be they regulatory issues, a narrow or niche positioning, or lack of preparedness. It’s a brand’s choice, after all.
Until now, that is. If Google’s new Sidewiki toobar application takes off, brands and businesses might be facing a hypersocial Web, whether they’re ready or not. Sidewiki’s only been out a month, but already it’s the subject of controversy. It’s been called “brand anarchy,” a communicator’s “ nightmare,” and “borderline reckless.” Could it lead to brandjacking? The nicest thing I read compared it to a heckler at a press conference. Not very comfortable for brand reputation pros.
Sidewiki is just what the name implies. It’s an application that acts as a wiki, open to participation by anyone. It allows users to post comments on a sidebar just next to a given site. It looks like this. As Google describes it, Sidewiki is a wonderful tool that enables all of us to contribute “helpful” information next to any webpage. Nice, right? And, there’s that term “wiki.” To me, it conjures images of a sober-minded editorial administrator, a la Wikipedia. A stern-faced, detail-oriented academic who’s ever-vigilant for incorrect, slanderous, or obscene comments.
That’s not the case here. With Sidewiki, the people are in charge…which is both wonderful and awful. The comments belong to the toolbar, not the site. It’s not Wikipedia; it’s more like someone standing just outside your fence, posting notices, spray-painting graffiti, or even yelling taunts or chucking rocks your way.
It can be beneficial to learn about the experiences of others when it comes to a specific business or brand, sure. But, playing nice isn’t always the nature of the Web. As I’ve mentioned before, social media is the new bully pulpit for disgruntled consumers. It’s a whiner’s paradise. With Sidewiki, any site can become a social media platform. We can vent about horrible customer service, complain about a tasteless ad, or slam a product we just tried. And there it is, right next to the company website.
And that’s not all. There are all kinds of implications if Sidewiki takes off. Competitors could theoretically place ads on the sidebar, just as they do now alongside search engine results. And, healthcare marketers already have a migraine just thinking about how pharmaceutical brands would cope with a sidewiki outbreak. By law, prescription drug brands cannot interact directly with users. And, let’s not even talk about the spam potential.
So, what’s a brand to do? Well, Google says not to worry…or something like that. Its algorithm won’t rank comments by recency, but by “quality” and “usefulness,” and it will take into account user feedback and a commenter’s previous posts, as well as “other signals.” This is Google-speak for downgrading or deleting gratuitously nasty posts. I’m assuming there will be a similar solution for spam.
Wikis have a spotty history, and Sidewiki might not even catch on. But, even if it doesn’t, brands and businesses are being mentioned every day online. If someone takes a shot at a brand on Sidewiki, chances are it’s not the first time. It’s up to us – the communicators, the brand reputation gatekeepers – to monitor, engage, and respond. Whether we like it or not, the Web is getting more and more social. We need to see the writing on the wall.