Marketers: Beware What Social Networks Tell You

One of the things that makes terrorism so frightening to the good guys and attractive to the bad guys is leverage. It allows a handful of people to attract unwarranted attention and achieve goals far beyond their actual numbers.

Social networks can have the same effect, giving a small group a voice far louder than its actual numbers or demographics might justify.

Consider how Tropicana juices this week killed its new orange juice packaging because some customers got together online and complained. Confronted with a relative handful of complaints, loudly delivered, Tropicana management almost immediately caved in.

According to the New York Times, Tropicana said it bailed on the new carton graphics not because of the number of complaints but because they came from such "loyal customers."

May I point out that these loyal customers are drinking the juice inside the carton, not consuming the carton itself. What the packaging looks like should really be secondary if the product inside is special.

Having tasted the juice, however, I understand the importance of the packaging, especially when the juice comes in so many variations (pulpy, no-pulp, some pulp, with calcium, etc.)

And the complainers happened to be right: The new packaging stunk, actually making it harder for the consumer to understand facts about what the package contained.

Score one for an angry Internet mob. But, that shouldn't confer too much power on the social networkers--we will never know whether the vast majority of Tropicana's customers actually give a flip what the carton looks like.

Perhaps, the reasons the company had for deciding to change in the first place were actually right? It is, after all, generally pretty easy to find unhappy customers anytime a change is made to a product they've grown accustomed to.

Beware of Focus Groups

One expert quoted in the NYT story described Twitter as being "the ultimate focus group." Others talk about Facebook and MySpace in much the same way.

But let me issue a warning: Just because a focus group, even the "ultimate focus group" tells you something, that doesn't make it so. A small group that can make a large noise isn't necessarily right, even if they are using a social network to organize themselves.

I wish I had a dollar for every time some dot-com era entrepreneur sat down to show me a new product and justified it by telling me how much the focus groups loved it. Of course, I mention this because it became the surest predictor of a product that would most certainly bomb.

It got to the point that I started warning these CEOs and marketing folks that when a focus group loves something, you really need to understand what they are actually telling you. It may not be what you think.

It takes guts not to let small numbers of very vocal people make your decisions, especially when you're not really sure what the decision should be. Understanding the limitations of listening to small numbers of very involved people, even if they include some of your best customers, will become a very important marketing skill if companies want to successfully navigate the new world that social networks inhabit.

David Coursey really does care what you think--especially if you don't all gang up on him. His e-mail is david@coursey.com.

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