How the Social Web is Redefining Community and Brand Legitimacy

by Eric Tsai

Recently I gave a presentation on social media in which I mentioned that one of reasons social media is gaining great momentum is that it fosters the creation of community.

Naturally, we all have the desire to be part of a community, to become an insider on something that we’re interested in.

I gave the example of how two fans who loved Coke created a Coke Cola Facebook fan page that became the 2nd most popular page on Facebook with more than 3.5 million fans and yet they don’t work for Coke.

I was then asked “How do I build our community?  Where do we find them? On the internet?” To that I replied “Start by looking around your office, the community should start here, with your employees first. Internet just makes it easy for brand enthusiasts to gather and share their collective values.

That led to a discussion about how internet is redefining the concept of community as we can now gather and form any online community revolutionizing the idea of social capital (connections within and between social networks) and embracing personal brands among audience members.

This is why social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn are so popular because they champion the idea of social capital enabling people to form interactive communities to freely express and connect.

It’s impressive to see that Facebook is approaching United States in terms of its population if Facebook were a country.


(Re)Defining Legitimacy: Opportunities and Challenges

For a long time traditional media has been perceived as the hegemonic manipulation of public opinion and consciousness by media authorities until the explosion of the internet.

We went from limited media sources (newspaper, TV channels, radio) controlling what gets passed through to virtually unlimited sources exchanging diverse and counter-hegemonic viewpoints.

In my opinion, this is one of the contributing factors (besides technology, economy of scales etc.) to the acceleration of social media into the mainstream spotlight.

People are seizing control of their own media experiences determining the spheres of legitimacy themselves amongst the social capital.

Particularly with information consumption, instead of being forced to accept and absorb the limited selection of perspectives offered by media controllers, consumers can now also become producers through participating in social media.

This create opportunities for individuals but problems for companies especially the more traditional organizations.

While social media fosters fresh thinking that challenges authorities, it’s actually a double-edged sword that also fragments communities.

To further compound this trend, people may trust information obtained from their social community much more than they do information from your company.

This is why many brands aren’t yet ready to join the social media party even as the distributed web has matured.

In addition, as the global markets shift into “conversation” mode on the social web, consumers are doing things that traditional marketer didn’t expect – taking ownership of those conversations often completely bypassing the hierarchies to fulfill their need for information about products or services.

In other words, social network instigated problem solving and value creation towards connections between people, allowing open influence within the networks.

The bottom line is that mistakes made by a brand in the social networks could trigger widely publicized compilations of the negative tweets, blog articles, images, and YouTube video with unpredictable reactions from all the open communities.

To understand social media, companies must first understand the power of people is in numbers and the beauty of the network is its pervasiveness.

Every company interested in getting involved in social media should develop its own strategy that can benefit from the open transparentness of the network.

The goal is to be perceived as authentic, interesting and personable.

If you are concerned about your social media presence, it’s time to re-evaluate your brand strategy from your customer’s perspective.

In this economy, consumers are rethinking their choices and are more conscious about making smarter choices, informed choices, and more up-to-date choices.

I’ve developed a model called (MEDIA) as tips that I use to help brands in the social web:

Monitor the Conversation

Get into the habit of monitor conversations proactively and listen to what’s been said about your company, your people, your competitors, and adapt accordingly.

Regularly check what’s already out there on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube so you can be ready to react.

It also helps to track your competition’s conversation since both of you have shared audiences.

The goal is to build tailored brand advocacy programs based on these insights and form a formal process to help drive brand credibility from the inside out.

Engage with Meaning

Follow Warren Buffett’s quote to deliver value: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

In this case, the time that people take to engage with your brand is what they pay, so engage with the idea to bring value and elevate the conversation (read my last post to learn why social engagement is about conversations).

During your next conversation with your customers offline, think about where the conversation starts and how it ends.

Would you say something different online than what you say offline?

Define Sphere of Legitimacy

Align promises to expectations and draw your own circle of trust and stick your brand in it.  In the context of social media, brands are being perceived as a person thus making mistakes is not where the problem lies, but how you handle the problem when they occur.

There are many examples (search Google) on how some brands got burned doing the wrong thing with their hand caught in the cookie jar.

Simply put, either plea not guilty and be ready to defend yourself or plea guilty and apologize gracefully, know where you stand in the sphere of legitimacy at all times.

Integrate with Brand Strategy

Social media is simply one aspect of your marketing arsenals that’s part of your brand strategy.

In fact, social media should be integrated into your marketing strategies to build influence through communication that consistently and accurately reinforce your brand to your audience.

Try leveraging existing social media resources to help promote your brand such as building a widget, starting a LinkedIn group, or creating a Facebook fan page.

The goal is to integrate offline and online marketing campaign that clearly defines your brand.

Analyze and Apply

Take the above steps and analyze the outcome focusing on the fundamental of the consumers’ online behavior.

Let people know why they should stay and be part of your community.

Focus on the experience of community, the shared emotional connections where members foster the sense and spirit of your community.

The idea is to constantly improve your community and to do so you need quantitative analysis to track the results of your engagement so you can apply what you learn on a larger scale.

Further Reading

Comments Closed


  1. Evan   •  

    Social media as a an opportunity for corporates? This isn’t what social capital is meant to be about.

    This sentence says it all, “The goal is to be perceived as authentic, interesting and personable.” Ie. not to be these things but to be perceived as being these things.

    As for me, I continue to regard most corporates as conscienceless vandals and will continue saying so to my friends and others in the blogosphere.

  2. Claude   •  

    I tend to agree with Evan
    Social networks are us ordinary people
    and I see a tendency for more and more corporation using
    social networks

  3. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Social capital is about connections regardless who’s use them as long as people feel they can benefit from them, let it be used for business or personal, it’s networking. Social media enables fluidness and transparency and should benefit us the consumers in the long run. Perception is reality and can be very subjective, everyone is entitled to their opinions but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Corporations may need to work extra hard to earn your trust back 😉

    Social networks bring people together from all levels, the power is within the number as I’ve mentioned. If the corporations want to use it they need to change the way they do things to foster true relationship with the masses; we’re not longer accepting information pushed upon us, there is a shift in giving everyone a louder voice.

  4. Nigel Cliffe   •  

    Eric, you are right,social networks see no boundary or limitation, ‘us’ people or corporations. The beauty of this Evan is that if corporations don’t play to the new rules they will decline to the point of obsolescence. This, if you like, is where the ‘people’ take control again. But for those corporations that display the right values, then they too will be successful. If this were not the case, where would you draw the line between an individual, a small group, a small org, a large corp, government….? I, for one, want to see the world improved by social media wealth, for the betterment of us all….

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  6. Andrew Ballenthin   •  

    Hi Evan, lots of great points. A few thoughts to consider, social media is definitely an empowerment tool for the masses to participate with or without a brand’s consent. However, if your recall during the days statements were made, “if you don’t have a website you’ll be out of business, we don’t believe in old economic this is a new economy and new model of business, people will change their buying habits and the masses will have the goods brought to their door”.

    A decade later we see an integration of online with offline. We see there have been definite shifts in consumer buying patterns in certain parts of the world (many countries that have low internet usage as a percent of population haven’t shifted as much as North America and Europe) and social media definitely has brought much change to the masses.

    We thought during the era every business would have a website. Today only some 60% of US businesses do have sites and many are outdated. In countries like Thailand, India, China, Russia and Africa the total percentage of companies that have websites is far less. The forecast that websites would change the world did happen but not to the pervasive measure envisioned.

    The challenge for people specializing in this field is to take a very wide look and appreciate that while they are agents of change sweeping statements about all businesses and all people should be made with care. The era was a huge learning curve that showed us what can appear to be a truth and dominate front pages of the news can within a day, a year or a decade simply just blend into the fabric of an improved society that caries on.

    As a marketng professional I’m a huge advocate of social media and have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours practicing, researching and sharing. But I’m also an advocate that when we look back in five years change may not take place on a global level the way we expected… or maybe it will, change is definitely in the air.

  7. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Thanks, yes you may not own the conversation but you do own your business to make changes if you wish to improve.

    Yap, marketers are in the business of adding value to customers brand delivering the brand promise; not in the cognitive pull of communication and persuasion business. social media is a tool that aligns with strategy an as always, tools change more often than strategy.

  8. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Update 1: 10/19/2009
    oOne months after my post on Facebook users, Mark Zukerberg announced on September 15, Facebook has over 300 million users now.

  9. I’m new to the whole social web ideology, but I’m a big proponent of the shift that’s it causing in the way that some companies do business. It’s nice to be able to actually participate in community discussions around a particular company and get feedback from them as well. This way they are more focused on their consumers and we can provide them with the information that they need to develop stronger consumer connections.

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