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Unauthorized Social Media Use: Shut It Down or Let It Be?

If you're in marketing communications, charged with policing the company's identity, you need to look at each situation of unauthorized brand use and ask yourself what are the benefits associated with letting the public do as they please with your corporate identity and your brand versus the benefits of shutting down an unauthorized use. Some companies, wisely, choose to look the other way. If the results are positive, why not let consumers do your marketing?

A quick scan through the discussions going on in these unauthorized Facebook pages, and those on other networks, reveals that the participants are often quite favorable toward a company. If you can get hundreds or even thousands of people posting positive remarks about your company, it can be quite beneficial, and in that case you might want to leave well enough alone.

Even if the comments are negative, they serve as an invaluable source of customer satisfaction information, and they might provide an opportunity for the company to weigh in and correct misconceptions. No difficult situation was ever made better by prohibiting its discussion.

If on the other hand discussions on a particular page or within a particular group are highly negative, you might want to consider taking steps to either close it down, or perhaps more effectively, to join in the conversation and take advantage of the opportunity to improve your company's brand through positive consumer engagement. One approach is to have an official company representative join the group, and participate actively in the discussion. To do so, you would have to identify yourself as a company spokesperson, act in good faith on behalf of the company, have the knowledge necessary to respond to questions, and have the power to do something in response to what you learn through your interactions.

You could choose to close down the unauthorized use by contacting the owners of the social network or site and requesting that they do so. In some cases, legal action may be required, bringing with it potential for backlash.

This was the case with a widely publicized example of brandjacking involving Scrabulous, a Facebook version of the popular Hasbro word game Scrabble. Scrabulous.com was launched by two brothers, Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, in 2006, and the Facebook application was launched in June, 2007. The game soon had over 2 million users, and tens of millions of daily page views. Claiming infringement, Hasbro and Mattel forced Facebook and the brothers to pull the game.

This raises some questions. First of all, for the corporate communicator charged with "policing" the brand, this situation might have presented an opportunity and not a problem. With millions of users, could Mattel and Hasbro have leveraged Scrabulous to promote the retail board game? And as an online version of the game, which could be played out over weeks and months between strangers on different sides of the planet, was Scrabulous really eating into sales of Scrabble? Apparently, the game makers were also in talks with electronic game maker Electronic Arts to produce an online version of Scrabble, so Scrabulous may have interfered with that. So why not buy Scrabulous?

However, Hasbro and Mattel did eventually determine that the potential of Scrabulous to erode its brand, and its revenue, was greater than any benefit achieved by allowing it to continue to exist, and prevailed on Facebook to remove the game. An unfortunate outcome of this decision was that it made more than 2 million Scrabulous users very unhappy with the company.

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