I recently joined a music label’s Facebook page, thanks to them premiering the music of an eagerly expected film. It is a wonderful strategy – no two ways about it. However, as a user of that page, here are some observations.

How serious would the team in the music label be about a printed brochure? Or a CD sleeve? Or their website? I’m sure they are handled by professionals (agency-side or client-side) and a lot of effort goes into it to ensure that it reads well. Why? Because it happens to be something communicated by the brand and bears a certain standard expected out of them.

Imagine – people cannot talk back to that brochure. They cannot offer feedback instantly to a CD sleeve. So, if there was an opportunity for people to offer feedback instantly on the quality of content and the way it is articulated, wouldn’t a brand have to be doubly sure about what it is saying and how it is saying that, regardless of where it is saying that?

I’m not sure what makes people assume that Facebook is meant for poorly articulated language – it sure could be, if one knew who the person handling it is/was. For example, there are brands which have multiple people handling online properties and they are listed prominently, along with a signature in each post, to identify who wrote that update/response. In such cases, followers/fans know that they are dealing with a person, within the brand organization.

Having read this introduction, see these updates from that page.

“Here was one of the most romantic songs you’ve ever heard!!…Now, take a breather and we would be back with…”

“Great to see, such ardent music lovers”

“A fun day it was!!! I’m sure you had fun being a part of…Do let us know…”

Such articulation may well be an intentional decision – as I said earlier, there is an assumption that such language and articulation is perfectly alright, even if it is posted on behalf of a respectable brand, if it is done online, in a place like Facebook. Or Twitter. It is ironical that this reaches more people when you compare it to other forms of communication from the record label.

If you are thinking, ‘What’s the F’in big deal…everybody talks like this on Facebook. Why point this out?’, I can understand.

Please note that everyone – people…individuals…your and my friends are talking like this on Facebook and Twitter. Not brands which are supposed to win the respect of fans/people. If they are, they may well be doing it through a designated person, who becomes the named person, who has been given the power to talk on behalf of the brand. A brand masquerading as a person and talking like this in this corny lingo just seems like a bad idea, to me, personally.

The other issue – muddled use of ‘I’ and ‘Us’. This is a classic PR lesson too – we spend a LOT of time correcting brand communication with regard to how it reads. Some of the basics we adhere to include using ‘my’, in a quote that starts with a ‘I’ tone. When a brand talks, it is ‘Us’ or ‘Our’. Do note that I’ve not yet used the words ‘grammar’ or ‘pronoun’ – intentional…to make my point in as simple a way, as possible.

In the posts above, a nameless, unidentified ‘I’ is saying, ‘I bet…’ and ‘I’m sure…’, in the same para which has ‘we would be back…’ and ‘Do let us know…’. If that would not be approved in other forms of corporate communication, why should it be allowed in the brand’s official Facebook page?

In my opinion, social media engagement is not about talking like people. Or, talking like target audiences. It may well be one of the tactics (if it made sense), but the crux is about winning the trust and respect of people/target audiences. If that demanded talking in a language that they are most comfortable with, so be it.

But answer this question then – why not speak the same language in advertisements, billboards, brochures, pamphlets and websites too?

You could argue – those are one-way communication modes, while social media is a conversation. Excellent point, but that argument doesn’t have a place in this debate. Why? Because, if you consider the purpose of any form of communication from brands and organizations, it is to reach out to target audiences in the best possible manner.

So, if the assumption about advertisements, billboards, brochures, pamphlets and websites are that they communicate to target audiences, why single Facebook and Twitter to bring the quality of language below the standards that are acceptable in those communication modes? Are brands talking to someone different via Facebook and Twitter? The target audience is same, if not more focused (unlike broadcast tools). They can also talk back and take the communication into a conversation – if someone is making fun of a billboard, brands don’t have a consistent way to know that. On Facebook, reaction is almost instant. So, shouldn’t brands be more cautious about how they are communicating here?

(Note: Twitter at least gives some reason for SMS lingo with its 140 character limit…Facebook doesn’t.)

Brand communication tasks usually have professionals behind them. You could question their creativity or thought process, but at a basic level, they ensure a particular standard to not let the brand’s image down. Would you ever see a printed advertisement with a sentence like this – “Great to see, such ardent music lovers”, with a comma right after ‘see’ where it is least required? No, because a decent enough advertising agency chap would have proof-read the copy; for his salary, for his agency’s quality standard and of course, for the sake of the client’s image.

Personally, there’s no excuse for poor quality language – there is a reason why we were taught language and grammar in school/college and there’s a reason why people adhere to such standards – because they are standards. If there’s a cultural evolution like SMS lingo, I can understand how and why it happened and its usage in mainstream communication, with a purpose. Without a purpose, the brand ends up looking silly.

Finally, it is up to the brand to question such practices and up to the agency to answer them satisfactorily. To be honest, I don’t even know if this page by this record label is handled by themselves or by an agency. I also understand the practical issues involved here – team members, sometimes not-so-experienced kids handling such properties. That is indeed an issue as clients and agencies try scaling up engagement, but these can be solved over time by having processes for content creation and approval.

On the other hand, if there is indeed a thought behind creating content of this nature, I’d love to understand the reasons and motives…to learn doing things differently, beyond my narrow view of how things are done.

That said, let me leave you with this sentence from a recent piece I read from Slate, from an article titled, “How To Write a (Good) Sentence

The writing of complete sentences for aural pleasure as well as news is going the way of the playing of musical instrumentsâ??it’s becoming a speciality rather than a means most people have to a little amateur, unselfconscious enjoyment.

Considering the number of people who I may have offended with my earlier observations, here’s a disclaimer.

These observations are merely that…observations. Everybody knows that we are operating in a fairly new space when it comes to social media engagement – it is up to the brand and its agency to manage it the way they think best. These so-called observations are just mine…I’m simply wondering aloud, as a consumer/user of these online properties.

I’ve also been accused of having a vested interest while writing about such observations – the only answer I have for that is this – the Indian market/social media space is big enough for many players and I (or my organization) is not interested in handling all of them – we cannot too…we’re not a social media BPO.

So, as some ask, why am I even writing about such ‘negative things’, if I may use the words of a thoroughly annoyed peer. Simple answer: Don’t we point to alleged bloopers in TV advertising? Don’t we refer to seemingly wrong statements in billboards? Why should this be any different? These observations do not need any answer from anyone involved – the agency or the brand. As long as they can answer these (if at all!) within themselves and satisfy their egos…that should be more than enough, I suppose.

Update (25.01.2011):

After reading that spirited debate in the comments section, I owe this blog’s readers some clarity. The brand I was referring to, in this post, was Sony Music India. Its Facebook page, to be specific. Given that context, here are some more.

I agree with Krish Ashok’s comments on how service/support is far more important than a decent sentence. But again, that would be akin to expecting organizations to see the support/technical capabilities of a person who has failed in class 10 – it happens, but in far lesser degrees. To extend that analogy, it’d also be like people buying a shabby looking mobile phone just because it has solid capabilities and functionality. This is more likely to happen, but we all do go for the shiny new thing syndrome. These are extremes we’re discussing and I’m sure there are middle paths all across these examples.

There would also be an angle of Indians-supporting-Indians here – customer service for the sake of support should obviously prioritize service/level of support over language and I suppose that rings true at least when Indians are supporting fellow Indians.

The final point is about what Sony Music India was doing in its Facebook page. It wouldn’t fall under support/service. I’d say it was doing the job of a brochure or an advertisement for a new film soundtrack, via social media. It was brand (soundtrack) marketing. While people participating in that effort weren’t complaining, I suppose that effort was similar to they hiring an agency to create marketing materials to promote that soundtrack. Just because a normal employee (taking Krish’s argument) from Sony Music India was involved in that effort, does that mean such marketing effort can be done with sub-standard language?

Pic courtesy The Rocketeer, via Flickr.