In March, Greenpeace posted a video on YouTube of an office worker munching away on a bleeding orangutan finger he found in his Kit Kat candy bar. When Nestlé asked YouTube to take it down, citing copyright infringement, a social media revolt ensued—viral video, Twitter chatter, Facebook hijinks. By May, Greenpeace had extracted a promise from Nestlé to stop buying habitat-destroying palm oil for its products.

Social media can be a powerful tool in marketing. “The big story now is that you don’t need a lot of money to get a lot of attention,” says Robert Kozinets, chair of the marketing department at York University’s Schulich School of Business. But it’s not one that is easy to control. “You enter into a game with a different set of rules from the ones you have traditionally been playing with.” When you try to influence people’s communications, Kozinets says, “the message gets changed by the cultural environment.”

To understand how word-ofmouth marketing works in online communities, Kozinets and his coauthors closely followed one of the first “seeding” campaigns. In 2006, a marketing firm seeded, or gave away, new mobile phones with a usage tutorial to influential bloggers. “The assumption,” says Kozinets, “was that you’d get a somewhat uniform output, that bloggers would stay with the script and recommend the phone to other people. What we found was that they had a lot of need to explain the campaign itself. Rather than drawing attention to the product, they drew attention to the marketing.”

Introducing a marketing campaign into an online community based on trust and relationships creates a certain tension, Kozinets explains. “We haven’t got the social rules yet for how we blend the social and the economic in ways that are comfortable for everybody.” Partly in response to that tension, “the community is going to go out of their way to truth-check.”

And that’s a good thing, says Patrick Thoburn, cofounder of Matchstick Inc., the word-of-mouth marketing company Kozinets studied. “Having coverage that looks credible, that wasn’t scripted, is actually really important,” says Thoburn. “People don’t believe companies tell the truth in advertising. The most powerful selling of an idea or a service or a product takes place among consumers.”

Still, when you let your message loose on the Internet, you can’t control it. The best you can do is contribute to it. Thoburn recommends listening. “There are conversations happening out there about your brand or product, and there are simple, free tools that you can use to listen to those conversations,” he says. “A really good first step is identifying influential voices and building a relationship with them.”

“The audience doesn’t want just words anymore; the audience wants action, and interactions. The strongest social marketing that you can do is the stuff that invites people to get involved,” Kozinets says. “It’s not a guy on a stage broadcasting to a quiet audience anymore; it’s a person on a dance floor engaging in multiple dances with multiple people. He’s gonna have to learn how to dance.”

Robert V. Kozinets, Kristine de Valck, Andrea C. Wojnicki, et al., “Networked Narratives: Understanding Word-of-Mouth Marketing in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing, 74, 2010.