So much has been written lately about viruses and malware that we pretty much ignore all but the most virulent strains. We have invested billions of dollars in anti-virus and malware detection software and have allowed our computers and smart devices to automatically update security signatures and spam filters to block those vicious little code snippets that are intended to inflict damage to our systems. We have a (false) sense of security that we are protected and that our assets – in this case logon ids, passwords, files, etc. – are safe and secure.┬áDo you have that same sense of (again, false) security about your brand?

With the advent of social networking comes social engineering. In most cases, this engineering is intended to shape your thinking, either blatantly or subliminally, in order to change your behavior. In other words, buy my product. That type of engineering has been around as long as someone has had something to sell, and has been the mainstay of television, radio and printed advertising for as long as they have been in existence. Throughout the history of advertising and brand management it has been a common practice to bash your competitors’ products. Most of the time this is done with catchy ads and is focused on building brand loyalty in a somewhat less than hostile manner – “I’m a Mac versus I’m a PC” being one of the more notable examples. But we all know that the real “down and dirty” stuff goes on behind close doors, with salespeople extolling the virtues of their products while not so kindly bashing yours – even to the point of questioning the buyer’s integrity, intelligence and intent. But those conversations usually don’t see the light of day and have little broad-brush effect on your brand.

With the world of social networking, the negative effects of what used to be behind closed doors social engineering can now “go viral” in an instant, limited only by the laws of physics. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) has been around a long time, and there are large corporations that have been masters at spinning messages that make you at least stop and think. But in those cases we have, for the most part, been able to pinpoint the source of the FUD and link it directly back to the company generating it and accept it for what it is. Social networks and social media now add a “cloak of invisibility” to that model. We have all come to recognize the value of the “community”. We listen to it. We respect its opinion. We turn to it for advice. We make choices based on its ebb and flow. We trust it. And therein lies the problem… What’s to prevent a competitor from doing some social engineering inside your community to spread some FUD?

This type of social engineering can take many forms. It’s pretty easy to mask your identity on the network, so one scenario suggests that a company could simply masquerade as a participant in your social network and start spreading FUD. But that’s not a foolproof method and traceability can be determined given time, money and tools. There’s a new breed of “gumshoes” these days. The second way is to influence or coerce an independent party to begin a negative campaign within your community. Once removed from the source makes it a little harder to trace. And then there’s the not so subtle methods involving mass distribution of negative information about your products. Just plant the seed. If it grows, fine. If not, keep planting seeds until one takes root. All three scenarios rely on two things – the viral nature of social networks and our “viral vulnerability”. In the latter case, as mentioned above, we have been conditioned to trust the community. Thus, once planted, the FUD virus can quickly overcome one or more of your community’s immune systems – in this case the value of your brand – and wreak havoc on your company’s health.

So what do you do to protect yourself from a social virus attack?

Find a doctor.

No, not a medical doctor, but a social networking doctor who knows how to maintain the health of your brand. I have been an advocate of adding the role of the Online Outreach Officer (OOO) to the executive team. Yes – the executive team. We have the COO to manage the operational health, the CFO to manage the financial health and the CMO to manage the market health. We need someone, at the same level of authority, to manage the brand community health. This has to be a tech-savvy person who understands the aspects and nuances of living in the social networking world – communities, groundswell, flash crowds, viral marketing and messaging, etc. It can’t be a refurbished marketing manager from the age of the dinosaurs…

Inoculate your community.

How you ask? There are several ways, but first and foremost is to build such a strong brand loyalty that it is almost impervious to outside attacks. Apple is a great example. They may not have the best products. They may not have the best support. And they may not have the best value to price ratio. But they have done one thing very well – they have “conditioned” their community through responding to their customers and always striving to over-satisfy them. Some may argue that they have slipped a little lately, but there is no doubt they have built an almost impenetrable shield of brand loyalty by offering good products and good services.

The second aspect of inoculation is to use the community as the delivery vehicle for your “anti-virus serum”. Just as your competition may be recruiting carriers for their FUD virus, you also need to enlist loyalists to create antibodies to protect your brand. This takes time and effort and must be carefully, and I mean very carefully, managed. The last thing you want is to turn a brand loyalist into an anarchist. When that happens people stand up and pay attention. This takes us back to the need for an OOO. It’s time to bring in the specialist.

Practice preventive medicine.

Be proactive. Just like exercise is important to good health, participating in your community and getting their involvement in your brand’s health is critically important. A healthy community can withstand a virulent attack much better than one that has been neglected.

Monitor the health of your community.

Just like your doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs, you must constantly monitor your community’s vital signs. Once the virus has entered your system it’s hard to eradicate it without potentially invasive procedures. Monitoring, like preventive medicine, requires participation, listening and responding. It requires investment in technologies that allow you to be part of your community. It requires active participation by your entire staff – not just the doctor.

Work on your bedside manner.

Your community will get sick. It’s almost unavoidable. In some case it will just be the sniffles and time will cure those. But in those situations where your community of brand loyalists is stricken with a potent virus, you need to listen to them when they are telling you what hurts. Many studies have shown that doctors who sit at a patient’s bedside and make eye-level contact with them experience much higher levels of patient confidence and trust. When your community gets sick, sit at their bedside and look them straight in the eye. They will be much more likely to believe your diagnosis and course of treatment. Again, Apple is a good example of how to build a good doctor-patient relationship.

While these recommendations are not sure-fire solutions and remedies, they will go a long way towards preventing the spread of a nasty social virus within the system that supports the most vital of all corporate organs – your brand. On the other hand, not doing them is an invitation to a nasty case of “brand yuck”, which if left untreated can result in a long recuperation period, or worse, a fatality…