Many years ago I was at a party at a friend’s place, having just finished our exams for that semester. The mood was fun, people were laughing, and overall we were having a great time sharing stories and telling jokes. Completely out of the blue, one of my friends there made a really inappropriate comment, probably thinking that we would think that it was funny. We pretty much stopped dead in our tracks and looked at him with our mouths open. He instantly realized that he had said something stupid, and apologized profusely. The comment was dismissed, we accepted his apology, and the night went on.
Now imagine if he had said the exact same thing on Twitter or Facebook, to hundreds of thousands of people who were connected to him. The resulting backlash would probably make him crawl under a rock and live there until his old age. People say stupid things all the time, but given the ‘immediate’ nature of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, before you can even retract something it’s been picked up by dozens of people and re-tweeted, reposted, shared, and blogged about. The reach of social media is absolutely insane – both good and bad things can instantly turn viral. Of course anyone who uses social media is well aware of this. Most people have some kind of filter (mental or otherwise) in place that makes them think twice before posting something online. But one group of social media users who still needs a bit of ‘social media 101′ are the companies.
Since social media is for the most part a free platform, companies have jumped onto every single network imaginable in order to connect with current and potential customers. It’s a win-win situation for them – there’s a gigantic pool of customers online who are tech savvy, currently using theirs or a competitor’s product, and can be easily targeted by age, gender, location, and countless other demographics. But social media isn’t all about “Like our page to win!” or “RT this to win tickets to our concert!”. Social media is exactly that – social, and it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to watch when companies get it so wrong, leading to the inevitable ‘social media meltdown’. So what do companies need to do to avoid these epic fails?
A few weeks ago a curious post appeared on Subaru Emirates Facebook page, highlighting an accident that had taken place on Sheikh Zayed Road. The post seemed legitimate enough, but what really made the post explode was that it started with “Women drivers at it again.” Now the last time I checked, this wasn’t 1987, and a person’s gender or nationality didn’t have a say in their driving skills. There’s an old adage that says “Look before you leap”, but in this case it should have been “Think before you post”. The post received numerous comments, shares, and screenshots – even making front page news on some of the local newspapers (and a few international websites).
Whoever posted the image then went on to defend their stance, rather than apologizing or taking down the post. Eventually someone did apologize for the post, but it was too little too late. The damage had been done, and the incident is now firmly engraved on the Internet for the world to see. If the purpose of the post was to highlight the dangers of stopping in the middle of the road, it was completely overshadowed by the inappropriate wording and ensuing comments.
Social media is so called because it provides a channel for people to interact with each other, similar to what you would do if you were at a networking event or even just meeting someone at a party for the first time. You engage in conversation, discuss topics, introduce other people, and so on. When I see certain brands on Twitter, I quietly cringe when I read their tweets. “HUNGRY? GRAB OUR QUICK VALUE MEAL BY CALLING 800-CHIKKEN! MMMM”. Okay so maybe they aren’t that bad, but you get my point – it’s not easy for a brand to be social on Twitter, because at the end of the day you’re just that – a brand or a company. You’re not trying to be someone’s best friend; you’re there to talk about a particular product and engage with people. And by ‘engage’ I don’t mean butt-in on people’s conversations asking them to try your product. Seriously, it just irritates me when companies look at what people are saying on Twitter and dive in uninvited to recommend their product. I was tweeting to someone about how her vacation in Thailand was, when out of the blue an airline tweeted us their summer airfare offers for Thailand. It derailed our conversation instantly, and I ended up just emailing her instead. Another point of being ‘social’ is realizing what your purpose is on a particular social media platform. Yesterday telecoms operator du had a nice little problem on their hands when the person running their Twitter account decided to reply to a user who was inquiring about an upcoming price rise in du’s package. The message from du was simply ‘if you don’t like it, cancel your subscription’.
Now du’s primary purpose on Twitter is to provide help and support to their users – as a customer service account, how can you basically tell your customers that they can go elsewhere? The account then proceeded to be bombarded with tweets and a subsequent hashtag #dupricehike was born. But the discussion was torn – on one side it was about people actually talking about the increasing prices, and on the other side it was about du’s tweet to consumers that they could take their business elsewhere. Eventually du woke up and tweeted out an apology, stating that the person who originally posted the tweet was no longer in charge of their social media (really now).
While I do care about the changes to du’s pricing, I’m more concerned about why someone in their right mind would tweet that on a corporate account. Which comfortably brings me to my third point…
Yes, I can hear you all groaning already, but just listen for a few minutes. By ‘social media expert’ I don’t mean the blogging queens, or the ‘I’ll get 300 RTs’ enthusiasts, or the ‘We can get 8,000 likes!’ lunatics. For me, a social media expert is not someone who actually calls themselves that. A social media expert is someone who understands not the technical workings of a social network, but rather why it exists in the first place. A social media expert thinks before they tweet. A social media expert can look at a brand and figure out which social network will be the most effective one, rather than squatting on all of them in the hopes that they get noticed. Most of all, a social media expert is someone who’s not just walked in from their graduation ceremony and sat down at a computer. While I’m sure there are plenty of intelligent and hard-working fresh graduates out there, I for one would like my social media to be in the hands of someone with a bit more experience, specifically in the realm of marketing and maybe even customer support. Asking people to DM your their account numbers on Twitter may seem like a smart idea, but you can quickly lose yourself in keeping track of incoming messages. If a company is looking at social media, hire someone who can come up with a competent strategy for it, and can then see that plan through. If you’re hiring an agency to handle your social media, then again make sure it’s an agency who again knows what they’re doing (trust me, there have been plenty of agency bloopers).
Social Media is still fairly new, and I think in the years to come there will be plenty of examples of companies getting it right and also horribly wrong. I only hope that other companies can learn from others’ misfortunes and vow to never make the same kind of mistakes.
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