Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Ilana Rabinowitz, Vice-President of Marketing for Lion Brand Yarn Company.

Social media consultants often suggest developing a unified “brand voice” and creating a rulebook about how to interact on social media.  This goes against two of the most basic criteria for success in social media: openness (transparency) and being yourself (authenticity).  The parentheses are the buzzwords often used with these concepts, that are a pet peeve of mine.

Until my company started engaging in social media, all anyone knew of our 132-year-old brand was what they saw in our products on the shelves at retailers and in a few magazine ads. Very few customers ever spoke to anyone at our company because most of our business has always been through retailers.

Lion Brand Sock Yarn 03
Image by On Hooks & Needles via Flickr

We got involved in social media because we were a faceless corporation and we needed to personalize and humanize ourselves.  We wanted to present the human faces and voices of our people because there isn’t any way to create a relationship with a corporate entity or to connect on a personal level. We did it because people buy from people, not from corporations.

Working without a rulebook has worked for us for two reasons.  First, the people who talk to our customers on Facebook, Twitter and the blog are our customers.  Not only do we not pawn off our day-to-day conversations on an agency, but the people who talk to customers are passionate about our company and are often heavy users of our products. They don’t need to be told what to say or how to say it because they are members of the community and know intuitively how to speak to them. Of course, we have made a few missteps. Just like real life, relationships things can get messy.  When we make a mistake, we apologize, learn from it and then move on.

There is a moment in the movie, “A Few Good Men”, when the defendant in a military murder case is being questioned by the prosecuting attorney. The defendant says he was only carrying out an order to perform a “code red,” an unofficial, but heavily ingrained  form of punishment meted out to undisciplined recruits. The prosecutor asks the defendant to open the rule book and show him where it talks about this “code red.”  Of course, there is nothing in the manual about this.  Then Tom Cruise cross examines the defendant and asks him to point to the place in the book that tells him where the Mess Hall is.

His point was, that just because something isn’t in the guidebook, doesn’t mean that people aren’t being guided by it.  The way to interact with other people, especially in our own small circle of friends, family and community, is known to us.  We learn it by being brought up in that group, interacting with them, observing them, mirroring and responding to behavior and learning.

I’m not suggesting you let people loose on your brand’s social media platforms without any training, but if you need to develop a brand voice then you may not have the right people speaking for your brand.

Editor’s Note: We will feature occasional guest posts from smart peeps from time to time. The following is one from one, namely Ilana Rabinowitz, Vice-President of Marketing for Lion Brand Yarn Company. Her credits include having developed Lion Media, which includes a 1.15 million subscriber newsletter, a 1 million circulation “magalog”,  aFacebook page with 137,000 “likes,” an award-winning blog with 50,000 monthly visitors, a YouTube channel with 1.3 million views, 4,800 Twitter followers, a podcast with 10,000 listeners and a website with 2 million monthly visits. Not too shabby.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Victoriakamm

    There is such a huge opportunity for reaching end users – the real customers. Great to see somebody actually doing it!

  • Stephanie Schwab:Socialologist

    Not too shabby, indeed! As someone who was there at the beginning of the Lion Brand social juggernaut, I can attest to the success of their use of employees-as-customers as the foundation for their brand voice. However, not every organization has the depth of passion and depth of bench for employee brand ambassadors that Lion Brand does. In that case, wouldn't you agree that some kind of social/voice guidebook may be helpful to assist front-line engagers?

    • Natp80

      I think that is the tricky bit Stephanie – making sure your brand ambassadors are passionate about the product! I don't think a guidebook is going to make people talk – you first need to get that passion building internally, then you will see the effect outside your 4 walls.

      • Stephanie Schwab:Socialologist

        I completely agree that it's great if your internal team/frontline engagers have passion for the product – but not all employees can be knitters (if you're Lion Brand), or parents of an infant (if you're a baby products company), or users of your complex business software product (if that's what you sell). So if non-customer employees are the best people to engage with your community for your organization, you may need to give them more formal training or guidelines – or perhaps partner them with an employee-customer to help them capture that customer voice and intel.

        • http://lby.co/dcc7Jy Ilana Rabinowitz

          Perhaps the social media voice or voices at a company should be required to be passionate users of the brand. I think that is more important than any other criteria for the position. Having conversations about a brand requires someone with good written communications skills and the passion guides the details.

  • amyshelton

    I think it is important to realize that part of social media's power is its informality. The “official” company position doesn't have that earnest that shows customers that you care about what they care about and will seem out of place.

  • http://socialmediadiary.tumblr.com/ annienoll

    I really appreciate this post. I get flack sometimes for our social media not looking strategic. I always say, that's part of the strategy. I want our social media to look like real-time, unfiltered, raw, and real personal interaction.

    • http://lby.co/dcc7Jy Ilana Rabinowitz

      Amy and Annie, I agree it is hard to reconcile the corporate structure with the informality of social interactions. For corporations, getting less structured means getting out of your comfort zone but that's what is required to embrace social media. Add a new requirement for businesses who want to succeed in social media: courage.

  • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

    Great post that I whole heartedly agree with. I think it is important to set a framework of what your employees should avoid doing so they understand what might be considered sensitive company information. Developing that framework is usually a much smaller task to achieve and it is easier for the team/employees to follow a subset of “what not to do” rather than a laundry list telling them how to be authentic.

    • http://lby.co/dcc7Jy Ilana Rabinowitz

      One of the things we have learned by listening carefully to our customers' responses and conversations is that they let you know when you have stepped in it (so to speak.) That subset of “what not to do” is a great idea to maintain in the social media guidebook.

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  • AndyJ

    “People buy from people, not corporations”.. slightly disagree with that because I buy indirectly from Microsoft because it is a strong mammoth brand in the corporate world. I guess this depends on how you can interpret the statement. Secondly point against using social media; once any negative info has been posted on the net then it's out there for good, there is no retrieval/delete function. Maybe an inclusion of two people authentication would allow anyone to post through a corporate owned profile…you just hope you don't have two disgruntled employees ;-)

  • http://www.eaudepig.com novelty perfume gifts

    I think it is important to realize that part of social media's power is its informality.

    • http://lby.co/dcc7Jy Ilana Rabinowitz

      Very simply and clearly said! The informality helps level the playing field so that small businesses with smaller budgets may be equally or even more effective than the more structured large companies where informality is not part of the culture.