Fear. Its undoubtedly one of the most powerful human emotions. For some, fear is a motivator. Conquering a fear can create an amazing sense of empowerment. But for most, fear is stooped in negativity. It cripples us. It prevents us from achieving things we want & need. I see fear everyday. I see it in the face of some marketers. I see it in the face of most managers. And I see it for the same reason that creepy thing called social media.

The root of the fear is common. Its the fear of the unknown. And the fact is that social media is a gaping abyss of unknown quantities. A formula for success is unknown. A set of corporate guidelines is unknown. And most importantly, the way customers perceive a brands presence is unknown.

In contrast there are a few snippets of information that we do know. We know that organizations that enter the social web leave themselves vulnerable to criticism. We know that trolls lurk in the dark corners of the Interweb. And we know that know that some brands got punkd by social media! So we get scared. We develop a paranoia that well be next. We contemplate whether customers are out to get us

Enough!

Its time to conquer this fear. Its time dispel this myth once and for all. Despite the widespread paranoia, customers arent your worst enemy. And today Im going to prove it. Heres how

Ive selected 3 corporate blogs for statistical analysis. Each of the blogs has a sizable community based around it. I have taken the painstaking task of analysing 150 user comments from each blog to determine the ratio of negative commentary. The 3 blogs selected for analysis were deliberately chosen to provide unique and contrasting case studies:

  1. GM Fast Lane " GM is representative of the corporate giant. It is also indicative of the worst case scenario. No matter how bad you think your company has it, at least youre not being blamed for the global economic turmoil. If any corporate is going to hurting in social media right now, its GM.
  2. Nokia Conversations " Nokia was chosen to provide a contrast to GM. Nokia is still a large organization, but is free of the baggage of a global giant such as GM. If GM is our worst case scenario, Nokia is far closer to the norm.
  3. Articulate " Articulate was chosen to be a champion for small/niche businesses. It was also specifically chosen because the blog is highly customer focused. While GM and Nokia focus predominantly on internal issues, Articulate is a blog for the people. Therefore, its our best case scenario.

General Motors

General Motors maintain one of the highest profile corporate blogs on the planet " GM Fast Lane. Fast Lane ranks amongst the 10 most popular corporate blogs in the world. Indeed, it is the only company outside of the tech industry to hold a position in the top 10, being accompanied by behemoths such as Google, Facebook, Dell & Digg. Fast Lane also hosts one of the most engaged corporate communities. Posts on Fast Lane regularly generate between 40-100 comments. Clearly GM are doing something right.

Butas we all know, the world economy aint what it used to be. Aside from the banks themselves, GM (along with Chrysler) is perhaps the primary scapegoat for public backlash. With the government bailout still fresh in the publics mind, how has Fast Lane fared in terms on negative commentary?


Comments: 37 positive, 79 neutral, 34 negative

Hmmm A little surprised? I know I was. The expected angst hasnt translated into a free-for-all trolling of the GM blog. In fact, positive comments still slightly outnumber negative comments. Amazing! Despite the current circumstances, just 22.6% of the user comments are negative. If this sounds like a lot, consider that youre probably not a multinational facing extreme anti-global sentiment. And youre not a scapegoat for the collapse of the world economy. This is likely to be as bad as it gets.

Lets take a look at Nokia to see a large business without the baggage fared

Nokia

Nokias Conversations blog makes for an interesting contrast to GMs Fast Lane. Despite the fact that Nokia is a multinational organization, it doesnt carry the stigma of a true giant such as GM. The Conversations blog is predominantly a product focused blog, showcasing Nokias latest products and technologies.

The Nokia blog demonstrates audience behaviours far more typical of a corporate blog. Most posts attract a handful of comments, with only the most popular items generating 10 or more responses. Lets see the negative comment ratio:


Comments: 31 positive, 108 neutral, 11 negative

Now thats more like it. The negative comment ratio is down to just 7.3%. Its true that technology customers are generally more passionate than most (Apple anyone?), but that doesnt necessarily mean theyre complimentary. Posts on Dells and Sonys product focused blogs have certainly attracted their fair share of criticism in the past.

The reality for most businesses is likely to be somewhere between Nokia and GM. Few organizations will face negative sentiment on the scale of GM. And Nokia might have a bit of an edge in advocacy over most brands. My guess is that most larger businesses would experience a negative comment ratio of around 10%.

Now, lets take a look at a corporate blog that really kicks ass.

Articulate

A lot of you would never have heard of Articulate before. Theyre clearly not in the same league as GM and Nokia. Unless youre in HR or education, its unlikely youve ever hear of them. Articulate provide e-learning software solutions to fellow businesses. Not the most exciting product in the world. So it may come as a surprise to hear that they maintain a thriving community on their corporate blog. Almost 32,000 subscribers strong which puts them in the same league as Search Engine Land and SEO Moz! And Im willing to bet that puts them ahead of GM and Nokia in subscriber numbers.

In terms of audience engagement, Articulates readers are far more vocal than Nokias, but not quite at the same level of GM. Most of posts attract somewhere between 25-30 comments. Lets take a look at the nature of their comments:


Comments: 83 positive, 64 neutral, 3 negative

Whoa! Now thats impressive. Of 150 reader comments just 3 were negative, equating to a negative comment ratio of 2%. So whats the secret of their success? Articulates blog is truly customer focused. Entries typically take a tutorial format, providing creative ideas and guidance on how to use their software to create superior e-learning courses. In other words, theyre creating real value for readers. Reader comments prove as much:

Thanks so much for a wonderful tutorial! I cant wait to apply these wonderful tips to my presentations.

Once again you are saving me time. I havent really taken the time to look at all the PowerPoint functions in 2007 and I am amazed at how the themes work. Great tip which should save me a lot of time.

And on that note I declare this myth busted!

So what have we learned today? Its true that organisations are far from shielded from negative commentary in social environments. But the extent of that negativity seems to be significantly overestimated in many peoples minds. Few companys will ever be in a position as bad as GM right now. Thus, GMs negative comment ratio of 22.6% could be viewed as the ceiling of discontent. Any company that exceeds this benchmark probably deserves it.

For the rest of us, a negative comment ratio of 5-10% is far more likely. Some may still see this as a risk. But Id say its not nearly as big a risk as ignoring communications platforms experiencing massive adoption rates amongst consumers.

James Duthie is an Australian online marketing expert. This is the third article in the social media mythbusting series. Read the first and second articles in the series, or subscribe to his blog here.