Your lawyers can kill your online campaign

Lawyers are traditionally conservative and risk averse. It is rare to find lawyers who embrace technological innovation, particularly new technology that you find on the social Web. This combination gives you a professional who is ill-suited to give advice on such a dynamic platform.

Patent lawyers have technical training in the fields they practice in. You frequently find patent attorneys with engineering or similar backgrounds. Lawyers who practice social media related law should be required to have some form of experience in this space in a similar way patent lawyers must have their technical background. If your lawyer hasn’t blogged, used Twitter, Facebook or a myriad of other online tools, perhaps he shouldn’t be advising you on how best to structure your online campaign.

What most lawyers don’t seem to appreciate is that the social Web isn’t just about the software and the platforms. What makes the social Web special is the underlying ethos. To understand that ethos it is a good idea to go back to the book that arguably heralded the social Web, The Cluetrain Manifesto. Cluetrain didn’t introduce anything new to the world but it reminded us about the true nature of markets as social constructs and not as receptacles of corporate messaging.

The current Web’s social underpinnings have taken root and influence virtually every major Web-based initiative. Its social nature also means that businesses have to think differently about things like licensing, privacy and expression. Adopting a traditional legal approach to these themes and attempting to impose the usual legal constraints on social Web initiatives will only alienate users and quite possibly invoke a considerable amount of negative sentiment about the initiative. While any kind of press is good press, kicking off an initiative to vocal and negative reviews is hardly a dream result for most.

Protectionism as a strategy is not a viable strategy online in today’s environment. The speed at which criticism and negative sentiment can spread in virtual real-time across services like Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook (not to mention the seemingly exponential rate of dissemination across the distributed Web generally) can be alarming. While there is little a marketer can do to avoid negative sentiment if the crowd takes issue with an initiative, a good start would be to hire a lawyer who understands the social Web ethos and can help craft an appropriate legal strategy.

The social Web may seem very abstract and flighty but appearances, as “they” say, are deceptive. So, too, is the perception that hiring a lawyer not familiar with the social Web, through and through, is a good idea.

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