magnum pi smile

I will always a remember an episode of Magnum PI where he visited a little island radio station and watched a woman voice track (pre-record) her radio program. Later in the episode when there was trouble, everyone thought she was okay because they heard her on the radio. Then the pre-recorded piece she did with Magnum in the room came on the air. He knew she wasn’t there, and the wheels were in motion for a rescue.

It was the first time I realized a radio station could go on auto-pilot. It is now commonplace for radio stations around North America to use out of market syndicated programs, or voice tracks in place of live bodies on weekend and evening shows. It’s a great cost-cutting move … until something important happens and you don’t have a live body on air.

The same can be said for social media. Putting your feeds on auto pilot to trumpet brand messages, links, and encourage conversation is a great time saving initiative. I use Buffer to schedule retweets and links of interesting information. Everyday at about :15 past the hour, you’ll get something from me on Twitter.

I don’t use Twitter to necessarily market any specific product, my branding is that of a news and information source. While I do use social media to promote articles I write, I try to keep to the 80/20 rule when posting links and news, promoting others far more often than myself.

Still, when news of a bombing in Boston happened yesterday, I pulled all my feeds from auto-pilot. A tweet about basement renovations, how to find yoga classes with an app, or criticizing political attack ads didn’t seem to fit the tenor of the online conversation.

Unfortunately, there were many many others who kept their feeds on auto-pilot asking people to vote for social media contests, watch shows, and join Twitter parties.

WHY INTERNATIONAL TRAGEDIES FEEL LOCAL

The events of the Boston Marathon may have happened half a continent away but in an always-on world it happened in my pocket, in my hand, in real-time.

I didn’t have to wait until the next day’s paper or the late night news to see the footage and understand what was happening. This immediacy of information, with computers and communication devices in every hand, is what makes an international event feel like a local one. When you watch it unfold before you it feels like you are there.

I knew people who were running. I followed @Webby2001 on Twitter as he was stopped at Heartbreak Hill. I had another friend a mile away surrounded by the sound of explosions, and sirens. This far away event was suddenly very personal. In a world where we are connected by the social graph, you can quickly play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to get a personal angle on pretty much anything.

And that’s when being auto-pilot causes a crash. A restaurant in Miami may think they are just tweeting about their weekly explosive hot wing special, but when that tweet comes in between dozens of others showing photos, footage, and emotion from a bomb it appears insensitive.

When a brand is interacting on social media, it is a different relationship than the interruptive nature of ads on tv or the radio. They are invited into a stream alongside friends. The brand/consumer relationship becomes more personal. To not follow along with the tone of language being expressed by other “friends” makes the brand appear out of touch.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF ADVERTISING

Some have asked why brands shouldn’t market during tragedy, comparing it to the commercials that run on tv in between segments on the news. The best explanation I can come up with is: ‘it’s just different.’

Often information programs will go hours during breaking news without taking breaks. When they do take a break, there is a clear line between advertising and content. Graphics will come on screen telling you information is over, and an interruption is about to begin.

That doesn’t happen in social media. The reasons advertisers like to market on social is their ads are cloaked. They appear as a natural part of the flowing conversation. While that may work on a day when we’re discussing nothing more than the weather and the latest Bieber folly, when breaking news turns tragic, those subtle marketing messages stick out, appearing callous and insensitive. All Tweets and Facebook updates sit side by side with no barrier, the marketing tweets standing out and in a river of emotional responses, information, and news updates.

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Image via @Armano. Click for details.

DON’T BE RON POPEIL

It is very easy to turn the automated switch on for social media. If Ron Popeil was marketing the automated functions of Hootsuite, Buffer, and others he would be in front of an audience chanting “Set it and … FORGET IT!”

You can’t do that. You absolutely cannot just leave your social media feed automated without attention. Just as quickly as you turned it on, you need to be able to turn it off.

There needs to be an action plan. You need to have a point person that understands when tragedy happens, you need to re-evaluate how you are doing things. Local does not just mean your city, your neighborhood, your store. Local is now international. When an event is dominating news and traditional media coverage, it is most likely completely swallowing social media. You need to be nimble and flexible to react in a tone that suits the situation.

That all said, I will end with this tweet from Tom Webster. He was running the race when the bombs hit. He is a social media heavyweight. In all the “don’t do this, do that” lecturing, there still needs to be a space for forgiveness and understanding.

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