Shadow Marketing: It does exist, and it can destroy your brand

You can only control what you can control

If you work in IT, you hope you can control the systems, the software, and the data employees have access to. If you work in marketing, you hope you can control the message, the brand, and the customer experience. Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t go as planned.

If you’re a technology marketer (especially in the security market), you’re most likely familiar with the concept of Shadow IT – when employees use systems and software that are not managed (or in some cases even known) to the IT department.  While it can improve productivity for individuals and certain business units, it can lead to data theft, compliance infractions, and potential insider trading. Eliminating Shadow IT departments is now a primary responsibility for many security professionals and has created new technology sectors to address the problem.

While Shadow IT is something we’ll let our tech friends worry about, Shadow Marketing needs to be on our radar.  We’ve all read the horror stories of disgruntled employees leveraging social media to get revenge on their employers, but sometimes a rogue worker can destroy your brand without any malicious intent.  This is exactly how I would define the concept of Shadow Marketing – when employees outside of the marketing department (or sometimes even within) put it upon themselves to “help” market the company for you. With good intentions and real enthusiasm, actions by shadow marketers can have terrible consequences for your business.

Imagine an engineer tweets about how exciting it is to be working on a new product (and provides specifics).  If this is announced too early in the dev process, it will give the competition time to start developing their own version, launch ahead of you, and take away your first strike advantage.

What if a top sales manager shares internal customer success data on LinkedIn to generate new opportunities? While highlighting a client’s success may bring a few leads their way, it could also create legal problems if the data released revealed customer secrets. Even worse, what if it somehow violates an NDA?

These are extreme examples of how enthusiastic employees can create marketing nightmares, but even small infringements can slowly chip away at your brand and re-shape customer impressions of your products and corporate values. So, how do you shine a light on Shadow Marketing and put a stop to it? It’s hard, but here are three steps that can help.

1. Create a corporate marketing “code” of customer engagement. Make sure this is backed by the CEO and enforced by all department heads. This code should provide simple definitions of who you are and what you stand for (boilerplate messaging) and clear guidelines about social media usage, restrictions on data sharing and strict rules about what employees can and can’t do to market the company.

2. Control your communication platforms. Your team should be the only ones who can access and deploy customer messaging via email automation systems, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and your corporate site. Do not let other departments use these systems to communicate product updates, announcements, or customer feedback unless approved and signed-off on by the marketing department. The more you can control the systems, the more you can control the message.

3. Identify and educate the offenders. First, leverage social listening services.  After you’ve done that, create an in-house system for identifying and reporting potential marketing code breaches before they blow up. I know a few companies who offer monetary rewards for finding and reporting brand offenses.

While it’s important to know who’s violating your policies, punishing them does not help. As mentioned above, Shadow Marketing is most often done out of love for the company, so you don’t want to chastise employees for trying to help. Set up a meeting, discuss the violation and suggest alternative ways they can support corporate marketing.

As the rise of consumer cloud everything (storage, applications, computing) handed the power from IT to employees, social media has given workers the ability to deliver one message to many. While we all understand the inherent power these tools can provide for marketing, we also must understand the risk. Today any employee can become a marketer and shape the corporate brand and customer perception at the click of a button. Without creating guidelines, setting controls, and provided department-wide education, we all face the potential of a PR disaster caused by a well-intentioned shadow marketer.

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