Respect the crowd – don't shut them out

Well, I see the Facebook/Twitter hysteria is at fever pitch again. There’s the concern around market events like the fake Sina Weibo post stating that Kim Jong Un had been assasinated, apparently corroborated by the evidence of a cavalcade of black limosuines arriving at the North Korean embassy in Beijing around the same time. This started in China on Weibo, and within minutes had been translated into a fast trending topic on Twitter.

To be fair, while everyone is crying foul of Twitter and social networks for the potential chaos they could cause with false reports, the reality is Twitter and microblogging sites like Weibo get it right far more often than they get it wrong. This same week Twitter broke the news of Whittney Houston’s death a full 45 minutes before the press picked it up, just as it had with the death of Michael Jackson and Osama Bin Laden. The fact is, Twitter is more likely to break major news first, than any TV network these days. The unique aspect of Twitter is not only that it breaks the news first, but it allows a dialog around that news – so people feel not like they’re are just watching the news, but that they are a part of it – living it, participating.

Twitter doesn’t get it wrong all that often. Keep in mind Twitter users now send 1 Billion Tweets every 4 days. The instances of Twitter getting news like Kim Jong Un wrong, is miniscule in that stream.

If you are arguing caution on Twitter, it is like suggesting you don’t watch TV or read Newspapers because 1 in 10,000 stories could need a fact check.

Respect the medium’s power – the flow will continue with or without you. Fearmongering over minor hiccups will only distance you from those you must seek to engage.

Westpac’s miscalculation

Then we have Westpac’s attempt to filter or censor the crowd’s backlash at their mortgage rate hike. The primary criticism came as a result of the fact that Westpac raised mortgage rates ahead of any move by the Reserve Bank, ANZ quickly followed, as did Comm Bank and NAB later in the week. The issue is not the rate hike per se, but Westpac’s response to criticism by customers.

If you haven’t yet figured out how social media works, it’s about time that someone clears the air. Social Media platforms like Facebook, are not about spin, control or nuancing an audience. Despite what you might think, Westpac’s Facebook page is not owned by Westpac. It is a community forum to discuss the brand, on a platform hosted by a neutral third-party – Facebook.

While Westpac thought that this might have been a safe option (getting rid of the negative comments from irate customers) the fact is they just made the situation worse.

It was as if customers were ringing the call centre or walking into a branch and voicing their disatsifaction with the rate hike decision, and Westpac was hanging up on them mid-sentance, or worse, ejecting them from the branch forceably for not being nice to Westpac in their hour of greed. That’s how customers see it.

The dialog is an opportunity – take it

If you are going to be a brand living in the world of hyperconnectivity today, you can’t think like you used to think 10 years ago in respect to communications strategy.

Westpac had an opportunity to discuss their rationale on the rate hike in an open forum and accept that customers were not happy with the increase. Half the time when you get irate responses, people are simply looking for validation, for their complaint to be heard, to be recognized. If you can address their problem, then they’re generally delighted. That’s how you earn the trust of digital natives – you engage them and you validate their voice. What you don’t do, is cut them off at the knees if they don’t agree with your spin or brand positioning.

Citibank took an entirely different approach to the dialog opportunity. They were the first global financial institution to get Twitter accounts and start actively seeking support and dialog opportunities. When they launched their iPad App back in August, they even integrated Twitter into the App for customer support.

Right now we’re seeing a shift in customer sentiment and the way Y-Gen consumers select financial institutions, this is bleeding over into other segments as well. Brand’s need strong advocacy to remain relevant in this new dialog space, but you won’t get that advocacy if you don’t provide the respect to your customers that they expect and deserve in the transparent, social space.

That’s what Westpac got wrong. By trying to filter or censor the Facebook stream, they thought they were conducting damage control in the old marketing/communications sense of the word. Instead, they increased their risk of brand pushback and negative sentiment exponentially. A much tougher and longer term issue to deal with.

Respect the crowd – they have enormous power and will be the future of your brand. Understand that the crowd can advocate your brand, that they can be a massive resource. Push them away, and you may never again get their trust.

Talk to them, even when you screw up, and they’ll respect your openness and willingness to improve, adapt and engage.

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