It's hard to escape stories in the papers or on television about the way social media such as Twitter is effecting day to day life: from defying court injunctions to releasing gagged information, to helping organise revolutions in repressive regimes. How then is this new medium impacting on businesses?
Of course, some businesses are choosing to engage with this new sphere of marketing and public relations while for others the medium seems largely irrelevant. But are these sensible approaches to take? Is social media of no relevance to some businesses? For those that do engage, are they doing so in the best way? In this article we will look at two recent stories that throw some light on these questions.
Lisa Bachelor’s article in The Guardian highlighted a campaign by that paper, provoked by a letter from a reader who had been having a terrible time dealing with a particularly intransigent LA Fitness over a membership issue. The Guardian reader, heavily pregnant, whose husband had just lost his job, was finding the gym completely unsympathetic in coming to some amicable resolution on bringing their membership to an end. The paper attempted to mediate a resolution between the gym and the couple and the gym eventually, after much resistance, agreed to drop the remaining charges. However, the paper’s deputy editor decided to post the story on twitter – a move that resulted in an extraordinary storm of protest.
Thousands of people joined the tirade against LA Fitness’s behaviour, including celebrities such as Dave Gorman and the DJ Danny Baker, further amplifying the storm. One of the most popular posts encouraged people to cancel their memberships with the gym if they had one, which apparently many did. Other posts included similar tales of poor treatment by the gym. Eventually, even the Office of Fair Trading was forced into responding to the storm, telling The Guardian that it intended to crack down with a new initiative on gym contracts such as these that cannot easily be cancelled.
A few days later, Patrick Strudwick in The Independent discussed what he described as a "two-front war" currently being waged in the Twittersphere. On one front, Twitter users are pitched against Twitter itself. Twitter has recently announced that they will censor tweets in certain countries if they are asked to by those countries. This has huge implications for the promotion of freedom of speech, and the organisation of grass roots movements against authoritarian regimes like the Arab spring. On the other front, large corporations are attempting to dominate this new medium with the same overbearing tendencies of traditional marketing campaigns, who are also pitched against ordinary Twitter users.
Despite being assaulted on two fronts, Strudwick is in no doubt who will emerge victorious from the fray: the Twitter users. While companies trundle in with their heavy armour of corporate slogans and clumsy soundbites, they are completely defeated by the amorphous, determined and agile insurgents that are the Twitter users - who use the simple weapons of ridicule and scorn en masse to overwhelm and easily annihilate any cloddish attempts at manipulation. From McDonalds using the #McDStories hashtag to “tell people where our food comes from” being hijacked by battalions of radicalised users with tweets such as “I found yummy cartilage in my McNuggets” to Vodafone launching a rather naive campaign urging tweeters to say what things #makemesmile - subsequently being swamped by UK Uncut’s accusations of the companies alleged £6bn tax avoidance.
As Strudwick points out:
“Blue chips and autocracies fail to notice that no message can be pumped down a one-way street any more. Millions shout back. If protesters cannot use Twitter they will start another site, or use a code that would stump even Alan Turing. Those not listening will be deposed or bankrupted. For there's only one thing a Twitter mob devours more lustfully than the twitching flesh of a corporate giant, it is the rotting cadaver of a despot.”
So what conclusions can be drawn from these recent developments?
Firstly, companies can ill-afford to neglect social media, regardless of if they have active social media campaigns or not. As LA Fitness and many other companies are now discovering, Twitter and social media exist regardless. Even if a company has no presence there, it’s reputation and image are nevertheless always under potential threat from aggrieved consumers. In the past, companies could more carefully control their image through the traditional media of TV adverts and billboards, whose message was assured through finance and the protection of the law. You could deface and graffiti a billboard advert with a subversive message if you dared, but under threat of being arrested and vilified. In the Twittersphere and social media of today the tables have been turned, here graffitiing the corporate message, highlighting any shortcomings or hypocrisy, now becomes the message, protected by the uncontrollable multiple channels of 24/7 internet. In this new frontier, the power of money and the law that companies used previously to control their own image counts for increasingly little.
As those such as McDonalds and Vodafone are also discovering, naive and ill-thought out social media campaigns can be equally, if not more, devastating as well as totally counterproductive. A safer initial strategy might be for companies at a minimum to monitor social media passively, to provide an early warning of any potential grievances of its customers and the public, and perhaps use this as a spur to addressing at least some of these concerns.
It seems increasingly the case that especially for public facing companies, ignoring social media completely is now an incredibly perilous option, as is trying to use it as a billboard for naive or outdated marketing methods. Yet potentially it promises a more engaged relationship between companies and their customers, one in which the customers' concerns and needs have to be taken even more seriously than they have been in the past. Perhaps this is not such a bad brave new world after all, for companies and customers alike.