Last Saturday on Twitter, Whole Foods' "Tweet of the Day" caught my eye. The post, which "retweeted" a user's comment involving the term "Oh my f'ing gawd..." prompted me to question whether the company's judgment in the use/repetition of that term was appropriate.

This led to a blog post with more than 20 comments full of thought-provoking dialog. This post won't rehash the situation.
What stuck with me is the response I got from the self-proclaimed "Accidental Evangelist" who originally posted the "offending statement." To her credit, she apologized publicly for her remark. I found her letter poignant, as it raised issues anyone encouraging brand evangelism should consider.
Consider her abridged letter below:

"Funny how you can be minding your own business –share your amazing and joyful discovery with your friends and followers, and wham!, find yourself at the center of controversy.
I never meant to offend–. I rarely swear....I would never actually spell out the f-bomb -- or "God" in an inappropriate context. In retrospect, I should have concluded that it's not the actual spelling that matters....
–I never meant to be an "evangelist." Yes, I love Whole Foods–I talk about Whole Foods to my friends quite a bit.... And, hence, yes, I should know that this makes me an "evangelist". :-) I didn't think.... Like I said– I was extremely happy, I got out my sidekick and told my friends. That was all.
Your blog really made me think about the role of what I'm currently terming "accidental evangelists": those of us who really like a product/company, but don't think far enough out to consider how strangers and customers (current and potential) might interpret that product/company based on our statements. On the one hand, people shouldn't connect a company's values with that of their customers; on the other hand, I suppose they might...."

The facts remain that the everyday consumer may be largely unaware that the things they say can be quickly leveraged as unwitting endorsements (or castigations) of any product, service, brand (or individual); They may not understand the impact of their actions and how they might be interpreted (or misinterpreted) within and across channels; They may not fully understand the dynamics of social media and the potential it has to unwittingly elevate an individual into a spotlight; In truth, these vocal customers may not even appreciate (or want) the title of "customer evangelist."

Our judgment about how we communicate is influenced by a complex set of factors that may not relay appropriately in social media channels. Due to the of array methods and formats of communication as well as the viral, rapid spread of messages - it's relatively easy for the "total message" to be easily fragmented or lost.
Today, as the things we utter carry swiftly into downstream, cross-channel banter it's easier than ever before for people and brands to be taken out of context.
Customer Experience leaders engaged in social media must be aware of these dicey channel dynamics and adept at managing them. As new channels emerge and communication dynamics evolve, new personal and professional etiquette for social media will emerge. As brands engage, experiment and learn through trial-and-error, it's important to remember:

  1. Context is key. BI/Text mining and active listening enable companies to capture quotes, thoughts and insights from customers. However, they won't always capture the customer's context. Without an accurate understanding of context within which messages are issued, there is the potential to misallocate or misunderstand customers and do more harm than good.

  2. Common sense is critical. A company's presence in social media must be authentic, transparent, accessible and very personal, but it must also reinforce brand values. Social media managers should not mistake their own, personal values (culture, language, etc.) for brand values. It's largely advisable to err on the side of caution - and if a mistake is made - to own it and apologize.

  3. Permission & privacy reign. Customer evangelists may not want to have their material (quotes, comments, posts, etc.) directly promoted or attributed as a public brand endorsement. They may not want to be made into a public example. While privacy and permission policies may be helpful here, taking care to ask permission to quote a customer is absolutely essential.

Our Accidental Evangelist for Whole Foods admittedly "didn't think." She excitedly text-messaged her enthusiastic comment to her tight network of "tweeps" while standing in her local Whole Foods Market. She did so under the mistaken assumption that her message would stay within her network of friends and followers. She never imagined @wholefoods would rebroadcast her quote as the "Tweet of the Day."
As a persona, the Accidental Evangelist may be shocked to find the "the world" has heard his or her thoughts. This could happen to any of us, and that produces some serious food-for-thought.

You can read more about this situation here
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image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (