A few years ago, the first that most people would know of a new product is when it appeared on the shelves of their local store. A few enthusiasts might hear about things such as the latest PVR via forums like Digital Spy or AV Forums. And they’d be excited, swap information, maybe get in touch with the manufacturer and even set up a website, like the one I created for the Topfield TF5800 back in 2005.
In internet terms, 2005 was quite a long time ago; and things have moved on. Now every company selling desirable gadgets is aware of the usefulness of building a buzz; they use Facebook, Twitter, and just about anything else that they can think of, to ‘engage’ with people before a product even goes on sale. They may even have a presence on various online forums – and even if they don’t, their every utterance on Twitter, or scrawling on a Facebook wall, will end up being reported in various forums.
And, sometimes, this is where things go horribly wrong.
A fatal inversion
Once upon a time, there was a company called Inverto, planning to launch a new PVR into the then relatively small Freeview market; the company’s still around, but they’re not really involved with Freeview any more. And though all this happened before the more instant types of communication offered by modern social media, what happened on the Digital Spy forums is instructional.
The representative from Inverto posted, and engaged with people. And mostly, they thought this was ever so nice. But when there were bugs with the box, or delays with updates, or with delivery, people would expect a response.
And – this being the internet – no response obviously had to mean something. It had to mean there was a serious problem that was being covered up, or there was no plan to fix something, or any one of a hundred different negative meanings.
Not replying to a message within 24 hours meant bad things. No matter that it was clearly stated when the rep was travelling on business, or on holiday.
In short, once you’ve begun engaging with people online, you daren’t stop. Even if you have a good reason, clearly stated, there will always be people who won’t take any notice. Anything less than quick service, and someone will make a fuss, and draw negative conclusions.
Unless you can dedicate someone to keeping on top of forums – and now Twitter, Facebook, and all those other ways of interacting, don’t do it. People with whom you have never talked might be a bit miffed, but that’s nothing to the moaning from those who think you’ve decided to deliberately avoid or mislead them.
There are people who took part in the discussions with Inverto who will tell you it really wasn’t a pretty sight, and I’m sure there are other cases that will reinforce the idea – do this sort of thing properly, if you’re going to do it at all.
And so, that’s what many companies strive to do. Except, what they usually do is engage a ‘social media specialist’ to do it for them. They know they can’t afford to dedicate a member of their team to keeping on top of Twitter, or Facebook. And the account manager at their PR agency or marketing firm will be quick to say “Oh yes, we do social media too. We can come up with a social media strategy for you.”
So, today, you’ll find plenty of companies that tweet, or write on walls, and plenty of people who follow them, and believe that when they’re sending off a question, they really are talking directly with someone who knows all about the latest status of the firmware update for XYZ, or when ABC is finally going to be on sale in John Lewis.
And, very often they’ll be wrong. So – and there are a couple of companies that seem to be slowly getting themselves into this position – while a steady stream of updates is forthcoming, perhaps with competitions and trivia to build a buzz, as soon as you ask something awkward, and the person dealing with the Twitter or Facebook account – likely a junior member of the team, because everyone knows it’s young folk who ‘get’ social media, and it makes a change from having them phone people to see if press releases have arrived – can’t actually answer, or has to go back to the client for a response, things get sticky.
Not surprisingly, having paid a lot of money, I suspect some clients tend to the view that, actually, the people they’ve paid should be getting on and doing this, without having to constantly pester them. Unfortunately, that’s seldom possible; you might manage to have outsourced the typing of your Twitter updates, but you still have to make sure that people have the right information.
If you don’t, and you let people act on their own initiative, you end up with unedifying spectacles. I can think of one manufacturer who, having had someone presumably think it would be helpful to post a ‘production line’ photo on Facebook, has instead endured lots of critical comments from people who very likely know more about production lines than the person who took the photo, dissecting their processes – both manufacturing and customer communications – in an extremely critical manner.
There are other manufacturers that come to mind, where every comment from Twitter is taken as absolutely certain information about the arrival of a firmware update, and every missed date as further proof of the companies involved not actually caring once they’ve sold their products.
Hello? Who is that?
The same, of course, happens when people pick up the phone; there’s always a tendency for someone to call the phone number on a web site, whether it’s an electronics manufacturer, or an organisation like the BBC, and when they fail to get the right answer to a pretty detailed question, to post on the internet that “The BBC don’t even know how their own transmitters work” or “Company X lied to me – they told me something different on a different day.”
Of course, not many people do this, and most people are clever enough to realise that when you phone a big company or organisation, the person who picks up the phone is not necessarily the best qualified person to answer your question.
Somehow, though, that perception doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the way that many people engage with companies via social media, in my view. In my meanderings around the net, a lot of people do give every impression of thinking they’re engaging directly with the people who know the answers, at the company concerned.
Getting it right
Is there a solution? I’m not sure, but there are certainly things that I can think of that will help. For example, if you’re engaging a company to use services like Twitter and Facebook on your behalf, I think it would be wise to make sure their bio makes that clear. So, don’t say “Tweets from the XYZ team”, say “Tweets from ABC marketing, for XYZ.” At least that way, people will know they’re not speaking directly to the company concerned.
Don’t give dates that turn out to be hostages to fortune; I’m probably teaching people to suck eggs here, but if you can’t be certain – and experience often indicates that’s the case – that a launch will happen or a firmware update will appear, then don’t give a date, no matter how much people ask for one. “Around the end of August” gives a lot more leeway than saying “20th August.”
And if you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Don’t make it up on the hoof, and don’t go quiet. Let people know “I’ll find out the answer, but it may take a few days.”
Companies should make sure that the people using the social media know whom to speak with when they need answers – and those people should be briefed to respond, and get questions, not just put it to a back burner.
I’d love to hear from some of the people who do this work; do the clients expect the agencies to do everything for them? Are the people at the front-line worried that if they keep going back to the client, someone will wonder what exactly they’re being paid for?
Neither of those is realistic; as I said earlier, if you’re going to do this, you have to do it properly. And that means that it has to be a partnership, just like any other type of PR, albeit one where you’re much more engaged with the public. If you can’t manage that then, in my view, you’re best off not bothering at all.
And if you’re a member of the public, eagerly waiting information about an update, or a new product, following a company on Twitter, don’t forget – you probably aren’t speaking to the people you think you are.