Aug 12, 2008

False Personas and the Lessons of The Tonight Show

Beth Harte has an interesting post up about attending a conference where a company that created false internet personas was pitching its wares. The notion being that it’s a much smarter move in the social media space to create a false persona you can control than to risk having a live one who may quit or (worse) embarrass you.

She was rightly skeptical of the whole notion, and I couldn’t agree more.

Putting a fake persona out there tells people you don’t trust them. That you think they’re going to turn on you first chance they get. And that you think you can neatly package them into little boxes: “I know who you are. You’re a stressed-out working mom who feels that she’s not doing enough for her kids.”

Well maybe, but chances are I’m a lot more than that and consumers, as many before me have pointed out, do not like to be told “this is who you are.”

It’s condescending and it's offensive.

There’s also this idea that people can’t deal with change. That if your blogger or Twitterer leaves the company that this somehow derails your entire social media effort.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Look at The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson reigned over late night TV for three full decades. I mean I’m not sure most people even knew it was called The Tonight Show, since everyone just referred to it as “Johnny Carson.” (And he had taken over the helm from Jack Paar) When Carson retired, everyone was sure that the Tonight Show was over, that America wouldn’t accept his replacement Jay Leno. And while Leno wasn’t Carson, he quickly found his own voice and following and is now onto his sixteenth year as host.

The same logic holds in a corporate social media setting. No one is irreplaceable. Your customers will accept that people leave and new people take their place. You’ve just got to:

  1. Prepare them for it. Let your customers know you’re making a change as early as possible so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
  2. Transition. If possible, let the outgoing person introduce the new one. Maybe a few guest spots, the way Johnny did for Jay.
  3. Acknowledge. Once the original person is gone, don’t pretend they never existed. They did. Don’t snap at customers for bringing them up or even comparing the new person unfavorably. Change is never easy. But people will accept it.
  4. Keep Perspective. The Tonight Show played an important part in people’s lives. They considered Johnny Carson to be a friend. Your customers don’t feel that strongly about your corporate blog or Twitter effort. They may (or more accurately, they should) like the person they’re interacting with. But, as the saying goes, Your Brand Is Not My Friend™.

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