Keyboard warriors

Published 04 April 2012 16:50, Updated 05 April 2012 06:48

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When it comes to customer relationships and brand profile, social media has taken the private public.

Companies may want to remain offline and avoid the unpredictable world of social media but for a brand or company with any degree of prominence, there’s likely to be a conversation already online. Not taking part is an opportunity lost.

“You’re the subject of the conversation without actually being able to engage in the conversation and that is infinitely worse ... why witness it from the outside? Why not actually address the critics in the space?” digital agency VML Australia social media strategist Tiphereth Gloria says.

But as anyone who has spent half an hour on Twitter will know, that conversation can be a long way from what company executives might like.

Companies can face strong, repeated and vindictive criticism on social media from “keyboard warriors”. These are people angry with the company and who will say online what they probably would not say face-to-face.

Then attempts by companies to engage can turn into embarrassments. Like it or not, they must adapt to a world where their customers, and detractors, are afforded a platform.

“[Social media] is the equivalent of giving someone a megaphone in a shopping centre and asking them to talk about every purchase they’ve ever made,” online retailer Kogan Technologies founder and chief executive Ruslan Kogan says. It means he has to be on his toes.

“We can’t afford an upset customer at Kogan because they’ve got all these social media avenues to scream and shout,” he says.

Difficult or unhappy customers are nothing new; it’s just that now they have a public platform.

“Customer service people [have always been] copping earfuls on the phone ... now we can see it, the public can witness the anger and sadness and anguish and whatever else is expressed through social channels,” says Gloria.

But, according to the experts, there are measures companies can take to improve their standing in social media terms.

When customers or others take exception to a brand online, companies should try and engage them on an individual basis, understand what has upset them and if possible take the conversation offline.

“Try to identify who those people are and what’s driving their concerns,” a director of Ogilvy Public Relations’ social media arm, Social@Ogilvy, Brian Giesen, says.

Kogan says his company is quick to try to help customers online. “I know there’s been lots of times where a delivery window has been missed ... we’ll respond very quickly to that customer in social media, we monitor it on a more than an hourly basis, we’ve got staff around the clock,” says Kogan.

Once you engage a customer, they can be surprised with the service, he says.

Companies also need to understand the culture of the internet.

Often online, an audience will take the opportunity for a bit of “schoolyard silliness”, says Gloria.

That means efforts to engage them will need to consider how people can take a brand’s good intentions and corrupt them.

“It actually helps to have a juvenile sense of humour so you can anticipate how silly people can get in social spaces,” says Gloria. “Think like a 14-year-old school boy.”

Retailers Woolworths and Coles have been ridiculed online after encouraging followers to finish sentences. In February, Woolworths asked its Facebook community to “finish this sentence: this weekend, I can’t wait to ...”

The company was hit with a barrage of comments including, “Get served at the deli, because the Woolworths deli staff are too busy doing everything but serving customers”.

Their mistake, says Gloria, was not to understand the context in which they were communicating.

“They need to just wake up and stop being so naive and also stop using these generic and very childish social updates, like ‘finish a sentence’,” she says.

Woolworths declined to comment and Coles couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Before starting a social media campaign, companies must also be aware of their corporate profiles. Qantas Airways was hit with a social media disaster after it started a competition that invited followers to describe a luxury inflight experience. At a time when many in Australia and beyond were smarting from the airline’s decision to ground its fleet, its followers took the opportunity to ridicule.

Among the most cringeworthy responses was: “#qantasluxury is chartering a Greyhound bus and arriving at your destination days before your grounded Qantas flight”.

Qantas’ mistake was to fail to realise how annoyed people were with the company, says Gloria.

A Qantas spokesman admits the competition was “poorly timed” but says, “It’s misleading to define all our social media activity in terms of one experience.

“We have social media conversations with our customers on a wide range of issues every day and of course we learn from those discussions.”

Overall, he says, social media has been a good forum for dialogue with the company’s customers.

Companies should also keep a close eye on where they are being talked about online, says Giesen. Services such as Radian6 or BuzzNumbers offer ways of looking at social media and seeing what’s said, without having to monitor individual channels, he says.

To be a part of the conversation and engage on social media, companies need to build up a following. Giesen recommends a three-step process: “follow, create, engage”.

Companies should follow people who are relevant – the people that are talking about their brand and particularly those who may be perceived as having more authority, such as lawyers, authors and journalists.

“It could be media, it could be your customers, people who are talking about you, it could be your employees, it could be influencers or bloggers that are relevant,” says Giesen.

To create, companies need to start tweeting, or creating relevant content: “saying things that are useful to your audience. Then they need to engage. That is a case of replying to tweets, getting into the conversation,” says Giesen.

In social media terms, timing is crucial (see “Story of a crisis: From incident to fallout”.) Companies need to be prepared to respond more quickly than they may have had to respond to a public relations crisis in the time before social media.

That’s because information and opinion is disseminated quickly and if the company’s voice isn’t in the media mix early enough, other narratives may take over.

In the first six to 12 hours, says Giesen, people tend to share information, the facts of whatever the news is.

Then between 18 and 24 hours later is when people start to add their opinion to whatever the issue is.

“So if you haven’t got your side of the story out there ... people will make up their minds and they will tend to believe whatever the negative side of the story is,” says Giesen.

Companies may also find, as they build up a community online, that their detractors are dealt with by their followers and friends.

For instance, KFC Australia’s Facebook page has a lively community, some of whom are quick to defend their beloved chicken brand.

Late last year, one said, “If you do not like KFC why be a fan of this page?”

And while social media forces companies to communicate and engage in a way that may not make executives feel comfortable, if done right, it offers companies an opportunity to shine.

“Any business that’s got nothing to hide won’t be scared of the social media revolution,” says Kogan. “They’ll embrace it because it gives them an opportunity to excel at customer service.”

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