In an age of social media, companies must respond instantly to Internet controversies that imperil their brands. Here's how to prepare
These are confusing days for companies used to doing business by pre-Internet rules. We're in an age of conversation, collaboration, and real-time communication. It's not just how we communicate that has changed, but also how products are created, sold, bought, and evaluated.
Corporations' old-fashioned, secretive, top-down approach to communication is being turned on its head. Power has shifted to consumers, and change is happening at dizzying speed.
Just ask Amazon.com (AMZN) and Domino's Pizza (DPZ). Both brands have sustained heavy damage in recent days and neither company was prepared to confront or contain crises that wound up greatly amplified in the blogosphere.
As you've surely heard by now, on Apr. 13, two Domino's Pizza employees turned the 50-year-old company's reputation to toast after they filmed themselves doing nasty things to cheese and other sandwich ingredients they said were about to be sent out to customers. Within two days, the video had been viewed more than a million times on Google's (GOOG) YouTube. As of Apr. 17, a Google search for "Dominos" still turned up multiple, prominent references to the video, including one in the third-highest spot. Late on Apr. 15, Domino's responded with a YouTube video message from Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA. By late the following day, the video had only about 66,000 views.
"Punk'd by Social Media"
Just days before the Domino's debacle, Amazon was plunged into a controversy of its own. Overnight, sales rankings and search results for gay and lesbian books seemed to disappear from Amazon's Web site. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online forums erupted with criticism. Amazon said nothing for two days until it told the Associated Press that there was a "glitch" in its system. Twitter users immediately responded by attaching a tag (#glitchmyass) to their tweets that made it abundantly clear that they weren't buying Amazon's explanation.
In response to my AdAge post on Amazon's silence, a commenter said the social-media firestorm might have made a million or so people aware of either problem—a number he insisted isn't big enough to have long-term impact on the brand. But a million people are enough to swing an election, populate a fair-sized city, and turn a book or movie into a hit. And if each of those million people tells just one other person, the brand damage begins to multiply.
Domino's quickly was added to a long, growing list of brands that have been, in the words of Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang, "punk'd by social media.".
I've got some advice for companies that want to keep their brands off that list of shame.
1. Monitor your brand 24/7. We live in a 24/7 world. Deal with it. Information flows in real time. Finding out tomorrow about a problem isn't soon enough.
There are numerous free and paid tools for monitoring social media.
But monitoring is not enough.
2. Establish a credible presence in blogs and social media. If Amazon or Domino's had a brand presence on Twitter, either could have responded to conversation quickly. Chances are good that their participation would have been welcome. All they had to say was: "Thanks for letting us know there's a problem. We're looking into it." If the issue blew over quickly, that wouldn't hurt anything. If it escalated, at least they would have joined the conversation early.
Domino's was right to cut the video, but it acted too late. Anyone who cared knew a full day earlier that the employees had been identified, fired, and prosecuted.
3. Acknowledge the conversation where it's happening. When a statement is issued, don't ignore new media. Domino's and Amazon talked to mainstream media first, ignoring bloggers and social networks. That strategy backfired.
Endless conversations about whether blogs are journalism, or whether Twitter has any actual communication value, are moot. They're here, they've got millions of readers (more than much of mainstream media), and many of the writers are trusted online influencers. The day after the crisis erupted, while the blogosphere was ablaze with the news, major news outlets had yet to contact Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre, according to Ragan.com. "Right now, it's on Web sites and blogs," McIntyre is quoted as telling the blog. "It's not ABC, CNN, or USA Today." What's that supposed to mean? It's not news if mainstream media ignores it? Tell that to the Tweeters.
Amazon waited three days before issuing an official statement to AP, admitting that they handled the incident in a way that was "embarrassing and ham-fisted." While the company's chief technology officer is on Twitter, he didn't say a word about the incident.
4. Explain how you'll address the problems to prevent them from recurring. Companies whose customers complain are the lucky ones. The real problem is people who get so disgusted they walk away without saying a word, never to return.
Listen. Respond. Help. Here's a list of companies already involved in Twitter. Their approach may not be perfect, but at least they aren't ignoring the millions of people who talk to each other online. Here are more than 35 examples from Mashable. If you are listening, responding, and yes, changing, you are more likely to keep complaining customers than to lose them.
5. Have a crisis strategy ready to roll. The main thing Domino's and Amazon had in common is that they did not have a social-media crisis strategy in place. If you haven't participated in social media deeply enough to know who your brand evangelists are and where they talk to each other, how are you going to be able to enlist their help in a crisis?
If you don't have tools in place to monitor your brand—and if you'd have to scramble at the onset of a crisis to set up a blog, learn how to send a message or post a link in Facebook, develop a channel on YouTube, and follow people on Twitter—you're already too late.