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Disgruntled customers waging a social media war

Social media may have done much for the world, but it certainly hasn’t made everyone happy. It’s not just trolls, bullies and pedants: regular customers are annoyed too. Take a glance at the twitter feeds…

Frustrated consumers can now get their own back online. Sybren A. Stüvel

Social media may have done much for the world, but it certainly hasn’t made everyone happy. It’s not just trolls, bullies and pedants: regular customers are annoyed too. Take a glance at the twitter feeds of Northern Rail, or Virgin Trains, for instance. They have the unenviable task of responding to tweets peppered with ire when their services are late.

So what happens when customers start using social media to fight back against the source of their annoyance? This process is well under way, as consumers realise the exact same features that can give members of the public a platform for positive stories can also be used to damage the reputation of a company.

To take the best recent example, Hasan Syed, a particularly disgruntled customer of British Airways (BA), went a step further than simply grumbling online; he invested his own cash into a “promoted tweet” campaign to illustrate his point of view.

Promoted tweets are bread and butter for digital marketing campaigns with a social element. Once purchased, this type of promotion can ensure your message appears at the top of users' stream of tweets in a certain area of the world. Typically the cost of these promotions is quite low as brands buy in bulk while they do not expect a massive response, possibly due to online users cynicism for this style of advertising.

The net effect is to spread the message of your brand, promoting electronic word of mouth; the powerful online water-cooler chatter social media marketers are desperate to seek out. However, in this case things were different. Syed promoted his tweet to raise awareness of his experience and to spread a negative word-of-mouth.

The result: a sizeable number of people saw and retweeted the message and BA had to respond to save face and integrity. But BA’s initial response only made things worse, by referring to their official operating hours (unbelievably, 9-5). Consider the modern digital world where social media conversations take place at blistering speed 24/7, no one ever sleeps and your average social media marketing exec is expected to keep an eye on their online assets, even out of hours! Perhaps the innovative way in which this came about eluded even the most competent marketer.

This isn’t a new concept; negative word of mouth deliberately spread online has been around as long as the internet itself. Hotels, for instance, have been damaging their rivals' reputation with falsified comments and reviews on TripAdvisor, catching the attention of the Advertising Standards Agency.

Similarly, “astroturfing” is a term older than the web itself and was quite common in the dirtier end of political campaigning where crowds are influenced by loud (and paid) voices. This is a common tactic for a brands online presence within social media communities to motivate groundswell - a seemingly organic shift among consumers.

Social media has opened up new possibilities for ordinary members of the public to create this negative word of mouth. Not that long ago this was the preserve of only those with particular skills or platforms already available to them.

A famous early example of online consumer action came from US journalist Jeff Jarvis who took to the web to detail his poor experience with Dell computers. The result was the now legendary Dell Hell episode, where Jarvis' blog went viral and thousands of others annoyed with Dell’s service joined in. Though Dell largely managed the fallout, this gave us a first glimpse at how a disgruntled customer can generate havoc for a large brand.

Nowadays of course, things are different. Assembling a webpage is no longer a technological ordeal, as Open Source sites like Wordpress have made this a doddle. Any user can be up on the blogosphere spitting venom within seconds. And you don’t even need to have Jarvis' level of pre-existing celebrity or technological klout to get your message heard.

Social media has fostered communities who want to have their voice heard on a global stage. If you can get enough likes, enough sign-ups, can you change the way the world operates?

It has certainly levelled the playing field between user and brand, challenging Henry Ford’s view of his customers who can have “a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. If you consider the innovative ways in which a digitally-savvy nation can react, the challenge is for brands to be smarter about their behaviour. Indeed, many of the recent examples of car crash social media have a very strong undercurrent of the small guy taking on the big guy.

In this fashion the notion of the “social media fail” has become more prevalent (as well as making its way onto my curriciulum as a case study of “what not to do in digital”). When Habitat adopts the Arab Spring hashtag, Tesco tweets about horsemeat burgers or Nestle starts a slanging match with its detractors, the backlash is significant and makes for some delightfully cringe-worthy viewing.

Social justice is being meted out in droves with the power of the typed comment and upraised thumb being the tools of the new-age vigilantism.

We also find that brands are getting better at it, take Kitchen Aid, a US homewares brand who tweeted a bad joke by mistake. Within the hour they had issued an apology direct from the CEO, as well as a P-45 for the culpable employee! They managed to quell the tide of negative sentiment and by using an honest approach and engaging with the platforms available to them.

Reputation management in times of crises is truly becoming a skilled art these days: ‘dark-sites’ are managing crises as they arise, CEOs are on at the coal-face as soon as an exec sends an erroneous tweet button.

Big brands had better watch out, there’s more than just trolls about!

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