Discovering the Balance: Social Media and Marketing

Social media on the web is rapidly becoming a huge business. As communities are built all over the Web, marketers are just getting their feet wet in understanding how to leverage social networks to create targeted and engaging branding messages.

However, as marketers get involved, those who have invested their time and passion to build communities are becoming wary of how business is affecting these networks.

The best way for me to explain this is to tell you a story. This is the story of a teenager girl, her goofy friend, and thousands of adoring fans. Also, there may be some lies, betrayal and a hint of the occult in this story too. (thought I should mention that up front)

Now let me tell you about lonelygirl15. That is the screen name for Bree, a 16 year old girl who uploads videos about her life to YouTube. She began uploading videos in June, and she quickly became one of the most popular members on the site. When she adds a new video, they are prominently featured on the site.

Her videos are sweet, funny, engaging, and you get to learn a little more about Bree and her friend Daniel with each video. It is kind of endearing watching Bree obliviously ignore Daniel’s crush on her. If you have ever watched the Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, or the hundreds of other stories like them, you would appreciate these little videos.

But then, a funny thing happened. People started saying, gee, these videos are not just cute, they are too cute. They are not just well made, they look better than any other amateur video on YouTube. Daniel’s crush on Bree isn’t just interesting, it is an outright storyline. The dialogue is not just engaging, but seems very well scripted.

Lonelygirl15 “jumped the shark” (as Brian Flemming put it) with a video that gives a closer glimpse of a photo on her wall: one of famous occult figure Alistair Crowley. For a sweet innocent homeshooled religious girl, this seemed wildly out of place.

Quickly, a buzz generated online and the investigation began. Dozens of other “clues” began popping up. Conspiracy theories are argued online as everyone tries to answer two questions:

1.       Is this a fake? Are a group of people producing this for buzz marketing?

2.       If it is a fake (which is now widely assumed), what is it leading up to, and who is behind it? Where is this story going, and why?

Think this is just for teenagers? The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and BusinessWeek are all hot on the trail of who lonelygirl15 really is.

Will it be a marketing success? Probably. This is one of the more unique marketing tactics I’ve seen on the Web in a long time, and will unleash many imitators.

All of this simply underscores the opportunities and risks associated with the rapdily evolving world of social media. As businesses build communities online, and the anonymized masses contribute their time making them a worthwhile source of information and entertainment, where are the boundaries of trust within these social networks, and what is the affect to the businesses running them?

Recently there has been a brouhaha over journalists tampering with their own comments:

“A senior editor at The New Republic was suspended and his blog was shut down on Friday after revelations that he was involved in anonymously attacking readers who criticized his posts.”

And a similar issue:

“…the experiment backfired for The Los Angeles Times. The newspaper suspended the blog of one of its columnists after it was revealed that he had posted comments on the paper’s Web site and elsewhere on the Web under false names.”

Jeff Jarvis shares his opinion on this:

“So there is this strange instinct to hide behind a fake identity just because other people do it online. In the end, it’s just another form of lying.”

Update: TechCrunch looks more deeply into the evolution of social media.

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