As the power of social media increases, so does its negativity – and its potential damage to reputation. How can brands fight back? By learning to convert criticism into meaningful customer relationships, says David Woodward
In March, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams took to the stage at the Texan technology festival SXSW to deliver his vision of the future. Twitter, he said, wanted to be a “next-generation” business, supported by the twin pillars of openness and social responsibility. It seemed a laudable goal. But much of his message was lost in translation. While Williams explained his plans to presenter Umair Haque, the audience started to heckle.
It was an odd response to such a keenly anticipated keynote interview. But try as he might, Williams couldn’t summon any crowd-pleasing soundbites. Inherently comfortable with the concept of interactivity, the rabble posted sarcastic put-downs on Twitter. “There is a line to get OUT of the keynote,” tweeted robkknoth. Like some 21st-century Victor Frankenstein, Williams was being mauled by his own creation.
Aware of the growing unrest, Williams opened up the floor to alternative questions. “Will answer 10,” he tweeted. It was a rescue tactic laden with irony. Here was Twitter’s chief executive turning to his own platform to help scupper the mutiny. It also happened to illustrate neatly the subject of his presentation. Openness and responsibility, defined by Williams as “pay attention” and “be a force for good”, require a two-way conversation—a so-called back-channel—and the ability to embrace criticism as well as praise.
Maybe Williams enjoyed the experience. But it’s fair to say many other brands are struggling with the concept of two-way communication and its potential to damage their reputation. Built on a foundation of immediacy and ubiquity, social media has evolved into a radicalised moral compass, capable of destroying a brand’s reputation in seconds. “Twitter is a Babel,” says Deborah Lewis, founder of PR and reputation agency The Hero Machine, “a mad, mad world.”
For brands—and as the general election proved, also for politicians—real-time social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, are effectively giant focus groups, but with two crucial differences: the questions can’t be controlled and the debate takes place in public. “Organisations do need to treat social media differently,” says HR consultant Jon Ingham. “And that’s partly why they do quite often get it wrong.”
Any customer with a complaint and a keyboard can now deliver their indelible verdict to a cast of billions. Is social media unsafe for corporate consumption? In the wrong hands it can be, argues Benjamin Ellis, co-founder of Redcatco, a social media software company. But consider, says Ellis, that although brands won’t like everything they hear, every single piece of information is valuable. Evan Williams’s “next-generation” businesses embrace dissatisfaction. They channel negativity.
Inevitably, this is harder than it sounds. “Social media has brought greater transparency in all walks of life,” says Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life, a PR agency. “If something does happen it accelerates people’s awareness of it.” One of Fraser’s clients, Rentokil, recently suffered at the hands of accelerated awareness after Brands2Life released research to the media detailing the extent of insect infestation on the average London bus or train. Although the Evening Standard led with: “Commuters share trains with 1,000 cockroaches…”, it was later argued by Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre that the story was, at best, wildly exaggerated.
Goldacre laid the blame squarely at the feet of Rentokil, musing on the unseemliness of a corporation that “feels the need to make everyone afraid of public transport on a PR whim”. The story provoked a huge online response, with many readers venting their fury on Rentokil’s blog as well as on Twitter. The criticism forced the company into admitting the infestation numbers were based on a “totally theoretical” model. An “honest mistake”, says Fraser, meant that the figures released to the press were presented as an average, when in fact they were “a hypothetical or worst-case scenario”.
Rentokil marketing and strategy director Stewart Power says the “flak was justified” and the company has learnt from “a sobering experience”. Initially, says Power, “a degree of scepticism from internal senior managers” had prevented the company from committing fully to social media. Managers questioned the worth of a platform that might leave Rentokil “open to people who are likely to be negative about our brand”.
In the end, says Power, it was an initial “vacuum” of activity, combined with a failure to think through “the consequences of the way we were approaching social media” that caused the biggest problems. “Our approach to social media is now much more robust,” he argues. “We’re clearer about our objectives.”
Although it proved an unsavoury experience for Rentokil, the incident did provide an excellent example of the speed with which social media can transform righteous indignation into activism. “That power of social media to force change in corporate behaviour can be quite amazing,” says Lewis. “Look at the banks and what’s happened with bonuses. There’s no question that that wasn’t driven by public opinion.”
DK [a moniker derived from the initials of his “old name”], founder of Social Media for Suits, believes that most companies aren’t ready to deal with the consequences of a two-way conversation. “Most brands prefer to be gatekeepers, pushing out the preferred message from a traditional media. They aren’t ready for the signal coming back upstream.”
The next Nestlé
That’s because the traditional view of branding, explains Ellis, is that “if you spend enough money you can [convince] people that you are whatever it is that you want to be.” Social media kills that assumption, he says, because reputations can no longer be bought. “People will call you on it. One person doing that is not very noisy, but a million people calling you on it, well congratulations, you are the next Nestlé.”
A few months ago, Nestlé had the misfortune to host a raging argument on its Facebook fan page. Although the food conglomerate had become the victim of a co-ordinated Greenpeace ambush, aimed at persuading the corporation to rethink its sourcing of palm oil, it was the Nestlé social media team’s attempts to deal with the attack that caused much of the lasting damage.
As increasing numbers of activists gatecrashed the company’s Facebook page, company representatives appeared visibly stung by the criticism, threatening to delete any messages that used “an altered version of any of our logos”, before retreating to silence as hundreds of protesters flooded the site. To casual net-savvy observers, fighting criticism with censorship doesn’t reflect well.
A couple of days before the Nestlé storm, David Jones, chief executive of Havas Worldwide, an advertising and marketing agency, appeared to speak for blue-chip chief executives everywhere when he labelled social media platforms “inherently negative”. Power puts it differently. Social media, he says, taught Rentokil to prepare “for people who don’t know us as a company particularly well [joining] the dots together in a way that doesn’t entirely reflect who we are”. Lewis disagrees. “I don’t think the medium is negative. People who are outspoken are almost always inherently negative. [Social media] platforms play to the kind of people who are outspoken.”
Research suggests that given a back-channel, consumers will be inclined to behave negatively. A study by John Cacioppo at Ohio State University in 1998 concluded that the brain reacts more readily to stimuli it deems negative, influencing behaviour “more strongly than comparably positive information”. Last year, research led by Professor Nilli Lavie at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that subliminal messaging was much more effective when negative words were used, showing that even subconsciously we are more sensitive to negative information. Witness the bias towards negativity in the average newspaper.
This is a view supported by influential blogger Michael Arrington, founder of technology website TechCrunch. In print and broadcast media, libel laws exist to moderate our default negativity. But on the web, he argues, the battle to protect our brands from online attack is already lost. “We’re still wired to think of gossip as something that spreads quietly behind the scenes, and relatively slowly. But we’re already in a world where it’s all completely public, there are few repercussions to the person spreading it, and it is easily searchable. It’s no wonder people freak out.”
“It’s a scary world,” agrees DK. As brands, “you’re going to have to accept criticism and respond positively by being individuals”, rather than “faceless” corporations.
Consider the story of Domino’s Pizza. Earlier this year the company made a virtue of its customers’ complaints with a social media campaign designed to show openness and commitment. Reviews of Domino’s products were beginning to cause alarm at head office. But instead of trying to dilute the criticism with public relations, Domino’s decided to meet the criticism directly. The company made a “turnaround documentary”, describing in detail the extent of the problem and cataloguing its efforts to improve. “Domino’s turned the criticism into a reputation story,” says Lewis.
What made the strategy stand out was its complete transparency. The documentary, which was posted on a Domino’s microsite and on YouTube, included footage from a cruel-to-be-kind focus group in which the sentiment “totally devoid of flavour” was about as kind as it got. The cameras then followed the firm’s chefs as they first made improvements to the product and then asked focus-group critics to test out the new recipe. The company even permitted an unmoderated comments section on its website, allowing any customer to say whatever they liked about the new pizza.
Marketing professionals may wince at the repetition of a negative. By admitting the product had its critics, Domino’s risked alienating the customers that liked the original flavour. But the campaign shows that the rules of marketing have fundamentally changed. “No other generation has had the power [to] talk to a global audience,” says DK. As consumers, “we are empowered. Everyone has a voice.”
Openness has other advantages. “The old way is to start marketing a product once it’s done,” says DK. “Social media allows you to start marketing during the process. You involve the customer in some of the choices you have to make, creating a customer base as you go.”
Vitaminwater, for example, asked its Facebook fans to come up with a new flavour, while Starbucks, a brand that polarises opinion, was brave enough to launch a customer portal, MyStarbucksidea, allowing fans (and sceptics) to put forward their own ideas of how to improve the product.
“Social media is a powerful marketing tool,” says Ellis, because the customer is a much better advocate of your product than you will ever be. “Rather than build an audience,” he advises, “build a community.” Unlike any other channel, social media allows that reputation to grow from a community of dissatisfied as well as satisfied customers. “If somebody has a problem and you can put it right,” says Ellis, “these customers will be your most powerful advocate because they are the most credible.”