Justin Pearse: Why we can’t just shrug off social media scare stories

Justin Pearse is MD of The Drum's content marketing agency The Drum Works and is a member ofBIMA's executive committee. He is a former editor of New Media Age.

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on fake social media fans and followers had an echo of Private Eye’s superb ‘Woman Has Baby' front cover to many in the digital industry.

‘Scams Happen on Internet’ sums it up.

But as several people pointed out in the Drum story on industry reaction to the show, the national attention this sort of ‘expose’ creates means we can’t simply shrug it off.

Why should we care about a TV show ‘exposing’ an issue most people in the digital industry have been aware of for years?

The simple answer is that, no matter how much we’d like to believe it in our digital bubble, a huge proportion of brands remain far from convinced about social media. In fact a recent report found a third of companies with no social media strategy whatsoever.

The internet has always been a favourite whipping boy of the national press, which likes nothing better than to portray the online advertising and marketing industry as a den of thieves intent on swindling, corrupting and lying to the general public.

While the industry itself is robust enough to laugh off such smears, the problem is the dent done to confidence in the medium among brands.

Six years ago, the issue of ad misplacement on online ad networks – with ads from big brands appearing on the BNP Facebook page for instance – caused the likes of First Direct and Vodafone to pull their advertising. The coverage this resulted in on national media like BBC News was the last thing the nascent social media ad industry needed as it tried to build confidence in this new medium.

Today, although brands across the board have adopted social media, there are many more that are still very wary of it. Last night’s Dispatches program will for many have only confirmed their worst fears. Buy in at board level for social media is far less common at huge swathes of companies than many in the digital industry bubble believe.

Each time the national media repackages an established industry issue for mass market entertainment, it just means we as an industry, from agencies to trade bodies, have to step our efforts to educate and reassure clients.

Most agencies have at some time received an offer from a dubious supplier to step into a grey, if not outright illegal area in online marketing, from buying followers to fake clicks on Google Adwords. For most, with their entire business resting on providing clients with trusted advice and support, taking this route would be unthinkable.

The problem is the seeds of doubt that can be sewn by such portrayals of the industry as Dispatches. For any brand wavering on the verge of adopting social media, indeed even one pondering more digital investment in general, these doubts can be disastrous.

So programmes such as Dispatches should act as just another spur for the entire industry to increase efforts to educate brands on the incredible power social media offers to engage consumers. To turn such scare stories into an opportunity to demonstrate what can be achieved by building beneficial long term relationships.

Because one thing’s for sure, whether it’s Channel 4 or the Daily Mail, there’ll be another ‘Scams Happen on Internet’ story along sometime soon.

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Justin Pearse

Managing Director of The Drum's content marketing agency The Drum Works and member of BIMA's executive committee. Former editor of New Media Age.

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