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3 Categories of Social Media Risk

Are there particular industries or companies that attract a larger portion of “social media risk” than others?

A colleague of mine recently asked that question and I thought I would share a version of my response.

Rather than focus on vertical industries or specific brands/companies, it might be more instructive to look at three different categories of the types of anger or scrutiny that can snowball when pushed downhill by digitally networked communities. Here are three that I see regularly:

1) Consumer Anger Risk has several factors to consider:

  • The larger a business is and the more consumer touch points it enjoys, the more chance it has of attracting anger/scrutiny. For example, airlines, hotels and restaurants may be particularly vulnerable, because people spend the most time there and that equates to more chances for something to cause dissatisfaction.
  • The more of a monopoly the business / industry is believed to enjoy, the more people will use social media to complain. The utilities might have special risk here.
  • I also think the more digital a company is, the more chance it has to rile the digital pundits who have a tendency to cause a ruckus. Therefore, a major computer manufacturer may face more social media risk than an exercise-machine manufacturer, even though the products cost about the same and may get used in equal amounts. Unless you’re a couch-potato.
  • Those companies that are consumer-ratings reliant may also face extra risk through social media. We see this with hotels and restaurants, which increasingly are subject to up-to-date ratings supplied by the public. Consumers have gotten wise to the fact that those who complain very loudly and broadly against these types of businesses are often rewarded with extra perks and coupons. (Which continues to compound the problem by creating a “remediation bubble” that may soon pop, in my opinion.)

2) Special Interest Risk – Businesses with traditional enemies that always face threats from protestors and petitioners are seeing amplified risk through online channels. Thus – paper manufacturers likely see much more activity from Greenpeace. Burger chains see much more activity from PeTA. Et cetera. “Slacktivisim” is contributing to this – it is much easier for people to join a cause with a few keystrokes than it used to be when you had to attend meetings and show up at protests. (See related thoughts from Peter Sandman.) We’re also seeing “petition factories” like the for-profit Change.org (WSJ subscription required to see link), who encourage this type of click-protesting and “encouraged sharing” through social media. Geo-political activists have also been known to create “bot” accounts to automate their protests through Twitter and other social networks.

3) Litigation-Related Risk – There appears to be an uptick in plaintiffs’ lawyers and related special-interest groups broadcasting their gripes through online channels. And one has to wonder how much of that is a strategic driver to cause as much reputational harm as possible to drive an out-of-court settlement by their targets. Thus, businesses that are more prone to litigation should take note.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Are there any other categories of social media risk that should be captured here?

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