When Henry Ford introduced the Model T back in the early 1900s, he told his customers that they could have it painted any color they liked, so long as it was black. His statement worked because back then, people were just happy to get a car at all, there was almost no competition for people that wanted a car and Ford’s comments were taken as being “tongue in cheek” by the public. It probably helped him that production capabilities were limited and black probably was the only color that they could make the cars. If Ford had said that today, the public would probably take it in the worst possible light and his comments would be trending on Twitter in a heartbeat.
Social media lets people express their point of view, comments, recommendations and criticisms. That’s what it’s there for, so why do some companies shut down the discussions before they even get started? Take a look at the screen shot from Sesame Place’s Facebook page. The first thing that shows up at the top of their page is the area for visitors to “Write something…” It invites people into the conversation and lets people know that Sesame Place is interested in hearing what people have to say about the place. The overwhelming majority of the postings made by people are favorable, but a few postings exist that Sesame Place probably wishes didn’t exist are there. To their credit, Sesame Place leaves those posts on the page and as is often the case on social media, other visitors come to the company’s defense.
Now look at Merck’s Facebook page. In this case, visitors do not have the option to start a discussion thread of their own. They can comment on a thread started by Merck, but that’s it. That tells me that people who visit Merck’s page can talk about anything that they want to, so long as it’s a topic that Merck wants to discuss. Unlike in Ford’s time, people expect more from companies nowadays. Perhaps that’s why Sesame Place’s page has almost 14X the number of Likes than Merck’s.
Now, I realize that what Sesame Place has to offer is a whole lot more fun than what Merck has to offer, but considering that Sesame Place’s page is for a pretty small amusement/water park near Philadelphia and Merck’s presence is global, perhaps that’s why there are so few people that have liked Merck’s page. Also consider that there are about twice as many people talking about the Cookie Monster (he always was my favorite) crew than Merck’s page, it just might have more to do with the feeling of being invited in to the page. I wonder how many of Merck’s fans are also employees.
Merck’s page does one thing, though. It does prevent trolls from stirring the pot by starting inflammatory discussions, but since trolls have no problems hijacking an existing thread, the value to preventing that is minimal. This all goes back to what I consider the most important aspect of social media: getting people engaged in the discussion. It’s hard to get them engaged when they’re not even allowed to start a discussion that matters to them. Don’t let that happen on your own social media sites. Allow anyone to start a thread.
I see only two reasons why a company would prevent anyone from starting a thread. The first, as I’ve already alluded to, is that the company only wants to have discussions (such as they are) on topics that they care about and do not really want to hear what their customers/stakeholders have to say on a topic. If that is the case, then they should avoid using social media and stick to using a traditional website.
The second reason is to prevent trolls from starting an abrasive thread. Preventing people from initiating a new discussion topic doesn’t prevent trolls from hijacking an existing thread, so that has little real value and does more to hurt a company’s social media efforts than it does to help them. To quote Will Smith’s character, Cypher Raige from his new movie, After Earth, “Remember, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
If a troll or dissatisfied customer posts something you wish they hadn’t, deal with that, but don’t prevent people from being able to engage in your social media site just because of the fear that some troll might do something on your site. Let people discuss what matters to them. The result will be a social media site that gets people engaged and provides a real service/value to everyone involved, including the company.