An article in the venerable Globe & Mail provides one of many anecdotes of how companies are struggling to adapt their marketing to social networking – in this case Molson (of beer fame) creating a dubious photo contest on Facebook. Apparently the campaign raised the ire of self-appointed critics by implicitly encouraging drinking. Really?!? There are several lessons here – some old and some new. On the old front, we can see companies are still not completly getting the Web 2.0 environment, so to speak. The Molson marketing folks quoted in the story seem intent on talking “with” their customers on Facebook, but it’s clear they want to do most of the talking and have spent little or no time listening to their customers. They want to sell beer and came up with this thinly-veiled “cool” contest to generate buzz and make their  product seem hip. Smart companies will one day realize that some (most?) forays into social media should have absolutely no marketing purpose – explicit or otherwise. None. Heresy? Maybe….They can provide info, tools, contests and perks, but not push product or badly disguised advertising (such as user-created videos.) The key to marketing online is to pick the right time and place to market…and to be totally transparent about the purpose and benefits of the program. Too often marketers fail to do this, clumsily creating websites or campaigns on social networks that are totally out of sync with informal rules of engagement and have little chance of attracting a sustained audience.

The new lesson in this story, if I can be a contrarian, is that the marketers didn’t listen to the right audience when they decided to pull the campaign. From what I can determine, the chorus of complaints came from pundits and government officials, not the folks on Facebook. It’s not clear if the students on Facebook – the target audience – had any complaints at all about the campaign. The lesson here: figure out who matters and who you are trying to please. If I were on Facebook, I would think Molson is not only clueless, but timid. 

I don’t want to be too hard on Molson, since there are often no easy answers. But they are more likely to find them by spending more time online – where their customers are – and less time brainstorming over Red Bull.