Much Ado About Social Media Followers Who (May) Turn Into Customers

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Business was so much easier during the Middle Ages.  Establish your fiefdom, keep the serfs happy, collect taxes and fend off the occasional barbarian hoard or the jealous younger sibling.  Oftentimes a monarch with a large domain to protect couldn’t afford a standing army or a well-stocked armory.  Thus was born just-in-time defense and the invention of the “freelance”— knights expert in the art of war who would sell their battlefield prowess to any lord or baron with enough gold, precious stones or land to render payment.

So what does this WayBack Machine story have to do with social media?  Actually, quite a bit.  Today, businesses large and small operate with the assistance of “freelancers,” outsourcing services and tasks to a cadre of consultants, advisers, agencies, specialists or just plain outside contractors and vendors.  Add to that the new career ethic, which encourages employees to stay no longer than a few years at any company, the antithesis of the job-for-life dynamic of prior generations.  It all works quite well for businesses looking to save on payroll expenses, leverage unique or special expertise and remain competitive in the global economy.   But it may not always work so well in the realm of social media, unless you structure your business hires, partnerships and relationships for this new dynamic in public relations, marketing and sales.

The Portable Pixelated You

In recent news from the front pages of social media, litigation is brewing between a company called PhoneDog and a now former employee named Noah Kravitz.  It seems Mr. Kravitz set up a Twitter account called @Phonedog_Noah (combining the company brand with his personal name) and proceeded to help market the company’s products and otherwise engage with the Twittersphere as a paid employee.  He attracted upwards of 17,000 followers, and apparently did a pretty good job of helping the company expand its market presence.  So far, so good.  Then Mr. Kravitz decided to leave the company, and take his Twitter account followers with him.  (He renamed the account to @NoahKravitz.)

The company is naturally none-too-pleased.  From its view, the Twitter follower list is tantamount to a customer list.  And therein lies at least one of the hotly debated social media issues, with well-reasoned arguments on either side.  The last time I checked, companies usually frown on employees who walk away with corporate assets such as customer lists or sales databases.  But a group of Twitter followers is more than a list; it’s a unique construct in social media.  Followers are wedded to an individual Twitter account – and that’s usually a person.  After all, people like to engage with other people, and not the veil of a company logo (that is, if you are doing your social media right).  And Twitter accounts are obviously highly portable.  Mr. Kravitz reportedly has claimed that he had a separation agreement with the company (let’s hope it was in writing) indicating he could keep the Twitter account and occasionally tweet for the company.  PhoneDog now reportedly claims those followers represent a $340,000 corporate investment.  Mr. Kravitz then countered with a claim against the value of the company website’s gross advertising revenue, along with back pay for work done as a video reviewer and blogger.  The fur flies.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2

When news of the lawsuit spread, the obvious reaction was to advise companies to lawyer up, rewrite employee and vendor contracts, set new corporate social media policies, and call it a day.  That should take care of any business hiring or contracting with a social media specialist toting an established portfolio of followers.  More or less, it’s a prenuptial agreement with provisions for when (not if) the divorce clause kicks in.  So contrary to Mr. Shakespeare, the lawyers actually do come in very handy in this situation.   But the law may have reached it limits when it comes to the nuances of marketing products and services via social media.

Will The Real Follower Please Stand Up

It’s hard to tell where PhoneDog v. Kravitz will end up, though I tend to think the company will probably lose this round because the relationship between the two parties seems a bit murky.  Plus the notion that followers are intellectual property opens the proverbial Pandora’s Box.  Which followers?  Acquired when?  What about non-business friends?  And do we count the purveyors of get-rich-quick schemes, automated bot follows, bogus “follower wins” via Twitter gaming apps and those very friendly “ladies” with few followers and even fewer tweets?  If the individual prevails, do companies then circle the wagons even further in an effort to prevent employees or hired experts from walking away with a bounty of social media wealth?

But we’d still be missing the larger issue.

Social media influencers, especially the good ones, increasingly are becoming celebrities in their own right.  They may be followed and liked and +1’d for who they are as much as whatever company, client, product or service they work for or represent.  They are, effectively, their own brands.  Social media marketing is still relatively young as a new business paradigm, and in time companies will hire employees or contractors who will bring more to the game than a good education and a robust resume of job experience.  Businesses will be recruiting PR, marketing and sales employees or contractors with a global social media marketing presence that is recognized, valued, marketable and — for good or ill — highly portable.

Take Your Marbles and Go Home

When the PhoneDog v. Kravitz dustup first hit the social media news radar, in a tweet I used the example of Scott Monty, the well-known social media representative for Ford Motor Company.  Not surprisingly, Scott was (and probably always is) listening and jumped into the stream (duplicate information edited):

@joeldon If @scottmonty quits Ford, do the followers stay with the automaker or shift gears into his new gig? http://bit.ly/vrhwjD #pr #marketing

@ScottMonty @joeldon They can follow @Ford #pr #marketing

@joeldon Yes, but your brand has intertwined w/ Ford. A complex separation.

@ScottMonty But we had each established brands before we came together. As did Alan Mulally. #pr #marketing

Scott indeed makes my point.  He had an established brand before Ford.  But when people talk about and cite examples of success in social media, invariably you can’t showcase Ford without mentioning Scotty Monty.  They are virtually synonymous in any Top 10 list of social media business done right.  And maybe this relationship is forever.  Or maybe not.  Hired by Mercedes or GM or even Apple Computer, Scott’s 68,000+ Twitter followers go with him.  As do the blog readers, the Facebook friends and the Google+ circles.  Scott Monty is a brand, strong in its own right, yet currently intertwined with a company like a braided candle fueling a united flame.  Separating the braids is none too easy, but it can be done.  And each piece, i.e. each brand, will continue to glow and will more than likely prosper.  Sure followers of Ford not particularly interested in Scott’s thoughts and exchanges can gravitate to other Ford Twitter handles, as Scott suggested.  After all, companies jettison brands and divisions and products all the time.  At the risk, of course, of antagonizing or even losing longtime customers, who today may also be “friends” and “followers.”  Look at Netflix and its now-failed attempt to shunt DVD disk renters to a new domain called Qwikster.

What’s Mine is Mine, What’s Yours is Mine

Now Scott Monty (and other social media celebrities) might argue that if or when he leaves Ford, the followers can stick around or unfollow him.  This is very true; no one is held hostage after all.  But let’s take a look at the current case.  Mr. Kravitz didn’t do so badly after jumping ship from PhoneDog.  As we say in public relations, good PR or bad PR, it’s all good.  His Twitter followers have swelled by more than 40 percent, now exceeding 24,000.  Sure social media is not supposed to be a numbers game.  But Mr. Kravitz, and not the company, has the numbers.  Breaking up is so hard to do, but it didn’t hurt the metrics.

So you just hired an employee with a sizzling social media resume or consultant/agency boasting a marquee online presence.  What do you do to protect your social business investment?   You could bring in the lawyers, or I can save you a lot of money.  Lay the “before and after” on the table and have a very special kind of conversation.  If you hired the right social media expert, that person will be able to map out the ground rules for the commingling of the two brands, and the graceful way that the two will part company.  Not comfortable with what you hear?  Then perhaps you should seek outside counsel, ideally an attorney active in social media who understands the terrain.  But remember that your social media expert is not a traditional employee or a typical outside contractor.  By definition there is a symbiotic relationship between the two brands; so recognize that you don’t have a hired gun who will evaporate when the contract concludes.  Your social media champion is effectively your partner, and you each have vested interests in mutual, long-term success.

It’s one thing when a company changes it products or services, dispenses with a brand, or merges or acquires new assets.  But when you hire a social media expert or celebrity, the personal brand is part of the package deal.  Leverage it, grow with it, maximize your conversions.  But have your well-devised exit strategy in place and have it prepared well in advance.  Terminating an employee in the social media realm showcases the transparency of new media; it is a public strategy.  So the separation of the two brands should be spelled out in your PR and marketing plan before contracts are signed, before you convince, convert and celebrate the ROI.  The last thing you want is for your social media lightening rod to turn his or her lance in your direction.  Legal should be the last recourse.  The kings and lords of the Dark Ages knew this well, or at least the ones who lived long, healthy lives.

Joel Don
This monthly Social Business Trends column is contributed by Joel Don. Joel is principal of Comm Strategies, a consultancy that leverages public relations strategies, reputation enhancement and social media tools to maximize business success. Joel has worked for several PR and marketing agencies, and previously served as a public information officer at UCLA and UC Irvine. He also directed business and financial communications at a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. Formally trained as a journalist, he has written for daily newspapers and national magazines throughout the country. In addition, Joel developed a digital solution for measuring the readership of company news prior to the advent of today’s link-tracking systems. +Joel Don
Joel Don

@joeldon

Community manager + social media/PR consultant helping you leverage the right strategies & tools. Highs & Lows: skier & certified scuba instructor
Why Ello isn't the new Facebook (and the reason has nothing to do with technology)~by @arikhanson http://t.co/qVBDghG2qJ #newshinything - 12 hours ago
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Comments

  1. says

    Hello Joel,

    Very interesting post. In the corporate world, key employees usually sign non-competes which basically means an ex-employee cannot work in a an industry or job similar to the company for a stipulated period of time. I wonder what this could mean for a social media expert – can he continue to be a social media expert provided he does not work for the same industry (No Mercedes or GM after Ford citing your example)…

    Regards,
    Suchitra

    • says

      Suchitra, non-competes exist but they are generally not enforceable. You can’t prevent someone from earning a living, and that’s been the general ruling.  If you walk away with customer lists, that’s a different matter…but also very difficult to prove.  The PR, marketing or sales person could just have a good memory, or the customer could reach out to the former employee. The new dimension for social media is followers are not really a “list” and you can’t sever the relationships with a pink slip or a contract clause.  The new paradigm demands an alternative approach to the “partnership” between companies and their social media champions.
       

      • says

        I agree with you @joeldon:disqus . Sometimes you’ve developed those relationships in places not directly related to the workplace. For example, over the years a lot of my best and longest-lasting contacts I met through volunteer work (with industry associations) or at conferences. Even if the relationship moved into B2B status, it started out as personal.

        Really enjoyed this first column, Joel (so beautifully argued and written–as I anticipated). I remember that exchange with @scottmonty:twitter on Twitter…I even participated in it.

        I really think Scott is pretty exceptional about keeping his ego in check and doing the job that Ford hired him to do. That’s probably why he’s lasted as long as he has–mutual satisfaction. Lionel and Richard at Dell are a couple of other examples.

        • says

          Thanks Judy.  I knew you would remember the Scotty Monty exchange, since you were there live. I agree, he is among the authentic ones.  I suspect that Scott will probably disagree with my premise, though our Twitter chat did not really explore all the facets of this social business issue.  Your relationships, by whatever means and whenever acquired, are a new construct in this brave, new social world. 

  2. says

    You know what this situation this reminds me of? When a hairdresser leaves a salon. Before the computer age, if the hairdresser booked her own appointments, the salon complained that she “stole” their customers, and if the salon had all the contacts, they refused to tell the customers where she had gone, and the hairdresser “lost” all her customers. (In reality, the salon usually lost the customers no matter what, because they tried as hard as they could to track the stylist down at her new place.) Of course, today, smart hairdressers have electronic files stored away on their phones and home computers. Since there are no “salon company phones and computers,” the salon can’t take the contacts from them.

    • says

      Angelique, another great example of the commingling of brands. I believe salon owners often sub-lease space to stylists, and the stylists are expected to bring existing and new business to the chair. That’s in addition to the salon’s marketing program aimed at increasing business for all. That’s a mutually beneficial relationship  So is the customer loyal to the salon and its brand, or the stylist and his or her skills & personality? Or both?

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