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How brands should respond on social media

Facebook-reply-buttonThe final stage of the five-step social media engagement model I outlined is response. By following the previous four steps (evaluate, acknowledge, prioritise and classify, and escalate), a brand will inevitably be faced by the question: so how exactly should we respond?

First, any response should include consideration not only of what you want to say, but also who is going to say it and how; responding to a compliment is very different to responding to a criticism. Whatever you do, you must resist the natural marketer’s urge to control, target or infiltrate social media – the resulting fallout will provide perfect fodder for critics, competitors and commentators (especially those in the ‘traditional’ media). However, when done properly, companies are just as entitled as any other individual or organisation to participate in online conversation with their customers, and in most cases it will be warmly welcomed. Contrary to popular media opinion, these people are not just a bunch of activists waiting to attack – although they will if companies appear irresponsible or disrespectful by simply treating ‘their’ space as yet another advertising medium.

The ground rules for participation in social media are undefined and open to constant interpretation. One person’s contact and dialogue is another’s spam and manipulation. But responding with information about your product or position can deliver a number of benefits:

  • it gets your side of a story heard, straight from the source;
  • it can generate word of mouth, assuming what you have to say is worth talking about;
  • it provides instant feedback on what you have to say;
  • it allows you to communicate in your own voice, on a less formal basis.

Responding to negative mentions

Let’s first look at some of the most common negative situations and the kind of response you might consider.

Malicious attacks are directly intended to inflict some kind of reputational damage on an organization or individual. Yet they provide an opportunity to encourage others to support your position. A direct response is rarely recommended, but peer pressure can quickly redress the balance. Let’s be clear: this isn’t the same as rigging votes or posting anonymous messages, but about building a network of friends for a brand that will defend it in times of adversity, like a good friend who defends you in public.

There is a lot of what can only be classed as mischievousness that takes place in social media. People want to ruffle an organisation’s feathers because in their eyes they’ve done something wrong and want them to respond. If this happens, remember that you don’t have to respond directly, but you might want to before someone else does. Each case will vary, but a little bit of humility will go a long way towards showing an openness that could be quite unexpected.

However, the vast majority of negative mentions will probably just be caused by misinformation or misinterpretation, so make sure your communication is clear and honest. There are also opportunities to facilitate conversations and add value to existing communities, but that requires organizations to evolve from wanting to control the conversation to becoming the facilitator of conversation. The objective is to give people more reasons to talk about your company.

Responding to positive mentions

Positive mentions are generally easier to deal with – although take care not to come across as conceited or arrogant. In most cases, it will simply be a case of acknowledging the compliment and thanking those making it. If it’s something really wonderful, then you could also consider using it in some way as part of your own social media marketing efforts, for instance by linking, tweeting or blogging about it in a way that makes the acknowledgement public. Personally, I find companies that do this for every compliment quite tiresome – it makes me think they are vain, desperate or have nothing else of value to contribute (or all three) so think carefully whether you risk turning a compliment into a criticism, purely as a result of how you choose to respond to it.

Social media crisis planning


In this penultimate post describing the five-stage social media engagement model I outlined last week, I propose a process for escalating the most severe brand mentions.

For most companies, there will come a point where a comment is discovered on social media channels that is so important and so severe that escalation will be required; the single mention that sparks a whole series of internal recriminations. The key to keeping the issue grounded and assessed objectively is to have an escalation procedure in place.

By setting some simple criteria that must be met, you will be able to determine whether an issue requires escalation and, if so, who needs to be involved in resolving it. The criteria will vary from organisation to organisation, but are likely to be based around the following:

  • The influence of the person making the comment
  • The speed at which the comment is being spread around their networks
  • Whether the comment has, or is likely to, attract the attention of mainstream media
  • The number of other people agreeing with the comment or contributing similar experiences
  • The impact of the comment on your company’s reputation

The criteria you choose can be treated individually or in concert (e.g. the person must have high influence and the comment must be high impact). You may even have immediate and trending criteria to pick up both wildfire and slow burn issues respectively. On the basis of these escalation rules, you should be able to easily determine the most important issues that need attention, before they get out of control – at which point you will always be on the back foot, reacting to each new mention.

When it comes to the issue of who to escalate an issue to, try to avoid the default of sending everything straight to the CEO or general counsel. Instead, I recommend you put in place an escalation team consisting of senior representatives from key departments: marketing; communications; sales; human resources; product development; customer support; etc. By doing so, there is a clear and common understanding of the collective responsibilities of the group – as well as a reassurance that the right people are focused on bringing the issue to a satisfactory resolution.

How brands can respond to tricky questions on social media

In this second post delving deeper into my five-stage social media engagement model I take a look at how companies can acknowledge difficult questions and issues raised on social media in order to buy themselves time to formulate an appropriate response.

Once a brand mention on social media has been discovered and you have decided whether to respond, one of the most difficult elements of social media engagement for companies to deal with is the time factor. In social media channels there is an expectation of – indeed, sometimes a requirement for – immediacy. By the time the PR, customer service and legal people have all had their say, there is a danger that the discussion will have already moved on and you will have lost your opportunity to build a connection with an advocate or build a bridge with an adversary. For most organisations, it isn’t an option to bypass these internal stakeholders, but there are two strategies for dealing with this situation.

Be prepared

It is often said that conversations that take place on social media are a true reflection of the conversations that take place in real life. Therefore, chances are that the issues that get raised in forums, blogs and the like will be the same ones that you’ve already had to deal with as a company. It doesn’t take a lot of work then to adapt and modify the responses you would give to shareholders or journalists and make them appropriate for social media. Make them short and less formal, and put additional detail on your website (at a hidden URL if necessary) that you can link to. If you do this for the most common issues as part of your normal crisis planning and preparedness activities, you will save yourself a lot of running around every time someone mentions it on Twitter.

Buy time

For those new issues that bubble up online, you obviously won’t have pre-prepared statements ready to go. So you will need to buy yourself some time whilst you do. The best way to do this is to acknowledge the mention (note that this isn’t the same as acknowledging the issue or problem), through a simple form of words such as ‘Thanks for bringing this up. I’ll see what I can find out.’ This shows that the brand is listening to people’s concerns and may mean that they are more likely to suspend their final judgement (which will likely be influenced by their peers and your competitors whilst you formulate your response) until they hear back from you. The downside of this approach is, of course, that there is now an expectation that they will get a resolution in a reasonable period of time. So, before you acknowledge make sure that your organisation is committed to resolving issues as openly and quickly as possible, as attempts to brush a problem under the carpet or ignore it until it goes away are only likely to backfire, creating a bigger problem than a single mention in a social network.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at how brands and companies can classify and prioritise social media mentions in order to ensure the right person provides the right response in the right amount of time.

Why businesses should follow their customers on social networks

shunningI was somewhat disheartened, yet not completely surprised, to see that Twitter has released a feature allowing its users to receive direct messages (DMs) from people they don’t follow. As reported by The Drum, what this really means is that businesses and brands on Twitter can now receive DMs from customers – such as when asking for account numbers or tracking numbers – without having to follow them (it also opens those brands up to a barrage of DM spam which is perhaps just desserts).

It’s a move that comes at the same time that Twitter announces the ability for businesses to schedule tweets in advance so that they “can publish content at any time without having staff on-call to Tweet on evenings, weekends, holidays, or other inconvenient times”.

These are both clear signals that Twitter is prioritising the demands of brands and businesses who simply want to use it as a marketing channel for broadcasting messages, not a way to converse and interact with their customers. It’s further evidence of the slippery slope that takes Twitter further and further from the core principles of ‘social’ media and closer to mass commercialisation.

When it comes to the DM/following issue, I just don’t get it. Why on earth wouldn’t a brand want to follow its customers, to hear what they care about, what they’re passionate about, what they think of other products and services, and even competitors? Is it really that awful for a brand to be seen to be following their customers? Is it really that difficult for the person who asks the customer to send a DM to click the ‘follow’ button as well? And what message is this ‘arms length’ attitude sending to customers about how much the brand values them?

Scheduled tweets I can perhaps understand a little more (everyone deserves time off), but I’m afraid can’t see it being used for anything other than filling our timelines with more broadcast messages – even worse, messages planned by a marketing agency – with little resemblance to, or consideration about, what is happening in the world at the time. We have already seen examples where scheduled tweets have caused unfortunate reputation damage simply because no one can predict when a crisis or tragedy might occur. Many more brands look set to join their ranks with such an easy ‘fire and forget’ approach.

For me, both of these developments are nothing more than treatment for the symptoms of lazy marketing – interruption, irrelevancy and ignorance. Brands would be better advised to follow their customers, to listen to what they’re saying, and to talk to them like human beings.

Image source: stock.xchng

Will 2013 be the year of social customer service?

It was Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion who first exclaimed, “By jove! I think she’s got it”. But I’m finding myself shouting the same words in relation to the increasing number of companies I try to engage with on Twitter. OK, so I don’t actually shout, nor refer to them as female, but you get the general idea.

Three conversations of my own so far this year have led me to this literary conclusion, as well as a few I’ve seen mentioned by others.

Nationwide Building Society

My first example comes from Nationwide Building Society, which has taken the sad decision to close their branch in my local Norfolk market town. Despite petitions and protestations, they look set to go through with their threat at the end of this month, leaving just one bank (Barclays) in a small rural town whose fate already looks terminal judging by the number of empty shops.

I am sure Nationwide have their reasons, although as a customer myself they haven’t done a very good job of explaining them, one of which is that the branch simply doesn’t get used. So when I popped in this week to bank a couple of cheques and some cash (which I will soon have to make an extra hour’s round trip to do) and tweeted a photo of a fairly full counter, the last I expected was this conversation:

Whilst Nationwide’s initial response was a bit too scripted for my liking (the 1/4 gives it away), the “By jove…” moment for me was seeing them realise that even though they weren’t going to resolve my issue, that was no reason not to respond to it.

I don’t expect anything to come of it, but I do appreciate the fact that they have tried to listen. Although if I ever find out they didn’t pass my comments on, then I’ll be switching to Barclays!

British Airways

My second example comes from British Airways.

Now I don’t know if you’re aware, but the EU legislators have recently ruled conclusively that not only do airlines taking off from EU airports have to pay compensation for cancellations they now have to do so for long delays. The penalty to the airline is a flat rate per passenger of up to €600 (based on distance), unless they can demonstrate “extraordinary” circumstances beyond their control. Worse still (for the airline at least), passengers can claim for delays incurred in the past (although not completely indefinitely).

Personally, I find this pretty unfair, but having incurred such a delay when travelling to New York for Thanksgiving last year, I duly put in my claim for compensation (€1,800 – more than I paid for the tickets!) at the end of November. Then I waited for an acknowledgement. And waited. And waited. Then called. And waited. Then called again. And waited. And… you get the picture.

Having given them over 6 weeks simply to acknowledge my claim, I called again and said that unless they dealt with my claim then I would be forced to assume they had accepted it and would pursue them for the amount they owed my though the small claims court. They promised to “see what they could do”.

I was pretty incensed to have been put in this position, so took it out on the @British_Airways Twitter account:

Within a couple of hours, I’d received an email from British Airways confirming that my claim had been reviewed, approved and that I’d have a cheque within a few days. True to their word, it arrived today (and has gone straight toward paying for my place on a cycle ride from London to Paris in July, in aid of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices).


Buoyed by these two experiences, I decided to see if the @UKTesco account could help me get the VAT receipt I’d been requesting for a Tesco Direct order. You have to request one online, yet given no indication of when you might get it. Here’s the ensuing conversation:

Putting aside my astonishment that obtaining a VAT receipt from one of the country’s biggest retailers is such a rare request that it takes 12 weeks and gets done by a separate area of the business (I have visions of an old woman painstakingly typing up VAT receipts in a broom cupboard somewhere in Tesco HQ), it’s just another example demonstrating that social customer service on Twitter is here to stay – whether you like it or not.