The Customer is Now in Complete Control

Social Media

You may be humming and hawing over your organisation adopting a social media presence. You’ve seen an injudicious tweet smash the reputation of well-established businesses, ruin the electoral chances of a candidate in the Irish Presidential elections and scuttle the commercial prospects of an otherwise solid film on opening weekend. With this in mind, why risk it?

It’s virtually impossible to manage the message given the top-down industrial model practiced by business and politicians for generations is now dead. They are no longer in control of the message. The electorate and the customer are.

In The Accidental Guerrilla David Kilcullen, counterinsurgency theorist and adviser to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War troop surge of 2007, wrote of the impossibility for governments and organisations to achieve “message unity” due to the fact that “under globalised conditions the media space is a domain, an ecosystem, or even a battle space, filled with dozens of independent, uncoordinated, competing, and conflicting entities rather than a single actor or audience…almost all of them outside the control of governments and media corporations.”

Previously a good PR would be able to nip a problem in the bud. The problem according to media theorist Douglas Rushkoff is that “now there’s no bud, just pollen.” Try controlling that Alasdair Campbell.

Douglas Rushkoff
In Present Shock (2013) Rushkoff explains that in the past feedback used to follow after a decent interval. A company could launch a product and see how it did over an entire season. The gradual feedback would help it to adapt and plan for the next season. Nowadays feedback is swirling around minutes after launch. In How (2007), Dov Seidman, a management consultant who specialises in designing ethical business practices, writes that in the United States ”40% of teens and young adults share their opinions during viewing , right afterwards, or on the same day they see a film…Instant communication can build an almost immediate national consensus about a film, creating an instant hit or dooming it to a quick DVD release almost before opening weekend is over…in other words you no longer define yourself in the market; the market defines you.”

The problem with this according to Douglas Rushkoff is that “when feedback comes instantaneously and from all sides at once, it’s hard to know how people are reacting to what we are doing – or what we’re doing that they’re even reacting to…any single Tweet can mushroom into a cacophony. Ideation, corporate culture, development, production, branding, consumer research, and sales all become part of an iterative, circular equation where causes and effects can no longer be parsed. When feedback comes through the cycle in that uncontrollable way, it’s like putting that microphone next to the speaker amplifying its own signal. All you get is screech. You don’t know where to stand to make it stop.”

The only time I give two hoots about my utility supplier is when they don’t do their job. I don’t care about their great stories and what Stephen in accounts is doing at the weekend. And this is the thing, we don’t really care about you or your messaging until you offer us something interesting or upset us. Once you upset us we go online and bitch about you to our mates. If I find out that you’re pumping raw sewage into a river or that you’ve lied to me about where your trainers are made I’m going to complain, then I’m going to tell my friends, and then everyone on Twitter.

One term that has always bugged me is “Customer Delight.” I love Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway’s quest to get rid of what she calls “Management Guff” or more simply “bullshit” from the commercial lexicon. Her annual “Guff Awards” column is always an entertaining read. Companies feel that they “delight” customers by providing service that exceed their expectations. This is a bit extreme. Fine, I’m going to be satisfied if my utility supplier does their job and fixes my meter when they say they will, but is it really going to move me as much as a Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Clash album? No way. Will a company providing an excellent payments service cause me to jump around in raptures like the Irish rugby team did when they won the Six Nations Championship last Saturday? No, and it never will – anyone who says otherwise needs to get a grip. If I’m not thinking about you, you’re probably doing a good job.

According to Rushkoff the pattern of engagement is almost entirely peer-to-peer or horizontal. Consumers or constituents after the initial rant aren’t interested in having a conversation with the organisation, but with their friends. This doesn’t mean that you go off-line and stick your head in the sand as there’s far too much at stake. A large organisation can engage online to help solve a customer’s problem. For instance, after a recent twitter rant about my broadband, my utility provider engaged with me and helped resolve the issue with minimum fuss.

Smaller and more niche outlets such as specialist bike shops or watch makers can use vertical engagement across social media to engage consumers in a way that larger businesses can’t. If Jimmy’s Bike Shop is one of the main outlets selling Felt or Cervelo bikes and I’m an enthusiast, then I want to know. I’m going to engage online about various models and other accessories and again I’m going to let my mates know too.

Dov Seidman feels that the best strategy for companies in this transparent age is to be ethical and “walk the talk”. It’s fine to tweet or blog about innovation and new products launches, but do so in a way that assists the consumer in making an informed choice. Rushkoff agrees and says that “instead of simply responding to feedback from consumers or constituents, institutions contending with a peer-to-peer mediaspace must stop “messaging” and instead just give people the fact and fuel they need to engage with one another in a manner that helps everyone…this means abandoning communications as some separate task, and instead just doing all the right things that you want talked about.”

In 2011’s Irish presidential election campaign Seán Gallagher presented himself as an independent candidate and downplayed his history as an active member of Fianna Fáil – the party whose actions many hold responsible for Ireland’s current economic woes.

Gallagher – a driven but likeable sort – was coasting to victory three days out from the election before being ambushed on RTÉ’s Frontline by Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness about a cheque that Gallagher allegedly received from a business man for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser. This coupled with a “tweet” which came from a twitter account seemingly linked to Martin McGuinness’s presidential campaign put Gallagher under inordinate pressure on live television and he buckled. It was later discovered that the twitter account was not connected to either McGuinness or Sinn Féin.

It’s obvious that a decision was taken in the early stages of Gallagher’s campaign to practically bury his Fianna Fáil background. In today’s information age it’s virtually impossible to suppress anything and sooner or later Gallagher’s active involvement with Fianna Fáil was bound to come to the fore. More transparency from the outset allied to what was otherwise an impressive and positive campaign would probably have seen Gallagher home.

Richard Moore, his press advisor, moaned after the toothpaste was out of the tube about the tweet being “earth shattering,” but once Gallagher hit the front the next to unbearable scrutiny of his past was inevitable, and the coyness about his political heritage inexcusable. That tweet may have been in fifth-class mail but it was going to arrive sometime. It was enough to sway the Irish electorate, who got busy on Twitter and Facebook, and Gallagher having been destined for a long stay on the big screen was relegated to an early DVD release.

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