Managing the mentions: how big brands survive social media nightmares

Social media storm

Social media storm

“Is this how you silence people on your page?” “I’m still waiting for a response or am I not considered a customer anymore?” “Does anyone actually READ the posts people make here?” “15 days, 3 emails and still no response.” “Worst service provider I have ever encountered.”

In between the latest product shots and carefully crafted status updates, you’ll find comments like these littering the social media pages of major brands. As their relationships with their customers have moved online, social media has become a platform for businesses to speak to thousands of people in under a minute — but it’s also become a space for queries and (very public) complaints from legions of social media users.

Add in the fact that the next poorly thought-out tweet or completely offline scandal could soon spark a full-on angry onslaught from previously devoted fans and followers, and you’ll see why carefully managed social media accounts are crucial for big businesses. Some of the biggest Facebook fan bases can be found in emerging markets like Brazil and India, where ‘socially devoted’ companies have managed to respond faster to questions from customers than a number of major brands in countries like the US. But who are these people who present the face of a brand on social media, and how do they do it?

The life of a social media manager

While being paid to tweet can sound like the best job in existence, in reality, it’s a lot more complicated when you’re dealing with a few hundred thousand followers who expect responses in real time. As Facebook targets the next billion users and more and more people sign up to pin, tweet, gram and plus one, especially on mobile devices and in emerging markets, social media has become more than a passing trend, and one which organisations are adapting to, quickly.

Take, for example, traditional retailers. At companies like Woolworths, social media has become another component of their digital marketing and communications department, albeit one which has a close relationship with customer services. With more than a quarter of a million likes on Facebook, the South African arm of the retail giant is one of the most popular brands on the platform in the country, and deals with everything from requests querying the status of an order from its online store to whether or not it stocks brownie mix. With a Facebook page that can play host to 9 000 comments and wall posts a week and over 63 000 followers on Twitter, every update it posts is part of a carefully constructed content plan designed to take advantage of the platforms with targeted messages, and engage with customers on the medium they prefer.

“It’s important that our messages are consistent — obviously tailored to the channel that we’re speaking on — but that we have consistency in terms of our tone, in terms of what we’re relating to the customer,” explains Woolworths South Africa’s Digital Marketing Manager, Denver Berman-Jacob. “So that at any point of entry in their digital walk (for lack of a better expression), they are hit with a message that at that stage is relevant to them.”

While it’s relatively simple to draw up a schedule for tweets and shares, the volume of the @mentions and posts bigger brands receive — and need to reply to — can be overwhelming. Vodacom, the African-based mobile network majority-owned by cellular giant Vodafone, has business operations in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Lesotho and South Africa, with customers that hit Twitter and Facebook to complain about a network glitch or ask about their next cellphone upgrade. Its social media team is made up of 11 customer care representatives, two PR execs and three employees from communications agency Cerebra, who are responsible for figuring out which of the brand’s 50 000 mentions a month need a response.

Vodacom tweets

“We believe we’re the most mentioned South African brand on social media,” says Executive Head of Corporate Communications at Vodacom Richard Boorman, who has learnt quickly what it takes to keep hundreds of thousands of followers entertained. “Social media isn’t free advertising,” explains Boorman. “How you lose followers and engagement very quickly is if you start chucking out ad messages.”

The day-to-day operations of its Facebook page and two Twitter accounts (the official @vodacom and customer care channel @vodacom111) are the responsibility of the public relations team, and involve reviewing any major topical news and identifying any potential issues at a daily status meeting, then rolling out updates for any major product launches while dealing with queries from customers. A lot of the work done by the team simply involves observing the conversation, trying to see where problems could arise before they actually hit the mainstream.


It’s all about listening, engaging and measuring trends. “I find social media very useful for taking the temperature of what’s going on out there,” says Boorman, explaining that while it’s not always a strictly scientific process, observing tweets and wall posts can help with gauging public sentiment about the brand. Once there is a certain volume of conversation, it gets fed back into the business so the concerns or compliments are noted and built upon. “If you look at some of the biggest issues we’ve had in the past, it originates as a question or as a concern,” says Berman-Jacob. “If it’s not dealt with properly, who knows where it can end up?”

The desire to avoid a social media disaster is a persistent one — especially since no one knows who will be the next brand to get its (unwanted) moment in the spotlight and have social media gurus twittering about where it all went wrong. The stories keep coming: from McDonald’s’ and Waitrose’s hashtag hi-jacks to the retailers lambasted for poorly-timed tweets during Hurricane Sandy. But while it’s not always possible to predict a PR nightmare, it’s always preferable to try.

Although Berman-Jacob says the vast majority of the feedback they receive from customers on social media is positive, they are cases where the sentiment can turn. “There’s a warning system,” explains Berman-Jacob. “We are constantly monitoring what’s happening, not only in the social media space but around the business where there are areas of possible concern. By the time something comes up and reaches that tipping point, we’re not caught completely off guard.”

Given the tendency for people to criticise more than compliment, the Vodacom team says a casual glance at the posts on social media can sometimes make things appear worse than they are. “You don’t get people saying ‘Wow Vodacom, my last thousand SMSs went through fine, thank you,’” says Boorman. “But the second one doesn’t go though they’re on Twitter going ‘Vodacom you suck, where’s my SMS?’” This can create an echo chamber, where more social media users start joining in the conversation of complaints. If just less than one percent of Vodacom’s 30.6-million customers in South Africa tweeted something negative, explains Boorman, “that would be 300 000 ‘I hate you Vodacom’ tweets. You’d think the world was ending, but in fact that’s not a representative sample.”


The nature of the job means the teams often have to deal with less than impressed customers. An upset tweet starts a process of attempting to diffuse the anger by apologising, acknowledging the issue and reassuring customers that they’re working on making sure it never happens again. “You go past the emotion… and you address what the issue actually is,” says Berman-Jacob. “The reality is that people want to be heard. We need to make them feel that they are heard and we’re working towards resolution.”

It’s an easy point to add to the social media strategy, but one that’s important when dealing with the large volumes of negativity that comes with the territory when the brand is the latest trending topic for all the wrong reasons. Even with all the monitoring systems in place, some unexpected things can start slew of unhappy tweets.

It’s something Berman-Jacobs has experienced first-hand with everything from Halaal hot cross buns to job ads. Last year, the volume of accusations that its hiring policies were discriminatory saw Woolworths shut down its Facebook wall to customer posts, saying at the time that “when your page becomes little more than a platform for a well-orchestrated campaign of hate speech, we owe it to our customers not to subject them to such vitriol in our own house.”

Facebook responses

“That was one of the better things we’ve done,” says Berman-Jacob. While the company doesn’t discourage negative feedback, a portion of the posts went beyond rational complaints. “It was very abusive. It was a national conversation that was being held on Woolworths’ wall. Things that we will not stand for in a real world environment seem acceptable in social media.” he says.

Vodacom is no stranger to these types of brief but intense social media storms either. The company, along with its parent Vodafone, recently had to deal with the tempers of thousands of BlackBerry users after they lost service across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It wasn’t as big as the colossal failure that was the four-day BIS outage of 2011, which left millions of BlackBerry users worldwide unable to connect to the internet, but it illustrated yet again why posting consistent and frequent social media updates to inform users and mitigate the backlash is so important.

“Social media is probably the most critical tool that there is in crisis management,” says Boorman, explaining how traditional press releases and phone calls on national radio stations help in these situations, but “if you want to talk to people immediately, you use social media and talk where everyone else is talking.” When every tweet is a press release, the updates brands choose to post are massively important in limiting the damage to their reputation. In Vodacom’s case, they’ve learn not to speculate, but rather to simply acknowledge the problem – and quickly – even though they may not know its true cause for hours.

Suffering through network outages and other crisis situations can leave the Vodacom team and customers equally bruised. How do you deal emotionally with the sheer volume of insults and negative feedback being spat out in your timeline? “Prozac and whiskey,” jokes Boorman. “I think we’ve been insulted in so many imaginative ways,” he says. “It’s quite interesting to see what people can come up with.”

Sometimes it’s a case of simply stepping away from the keyboard before someone fires back with a venomous tweet. Of course, the main priority is to figure out why their customers are upset and fix it. But the company has also found that having a personality on social media is crucial. It has deliberately tried to put a fun spin on its responses, adding in a dose of local slang and Twitter-speak to avoid coming across as ‘too corporate’ and maintain a positive vibe. “It’s much harder for people to be angry and difficult if they think a human being is there. If you act like a machine, they’ll treat you like one,” says Boorman.

Vodacom social media

The bright side

The team tries to focus on the positivity by keeping some perspective — despite the initial complaints that drive customers to contact them, Vodacom’s senior specialist in corporate communications Ashleigh Dubbelman explains that the company’s word cloud visualisations, which display the most mentioned terms associated with the brand, often paint a different picture. “For the customer care guys, one of the biggest terms is ‘thank you’,” she says. “Once you do fix a person’s problems, it’s quite nice for someone who’s had a really horrible day to get a ‘thank you’ back.”

The company has also channeled the complaints into something productive. It doesn’t monitor the content of messages so it can’t stop spam SMSes, so it’s set up a crowdsourced scam tab on its Facebook page, where customers can add numbers and messages so they can identify the main offenders and block the numbers. When Vodacom switched from its traditional blue to Vodafone’s red branding, it launched a widespread marketing campaign that had people cringing when yet another ad hit their TV screens. It fed the sentiment back to the marketing department, which reduced the flighting schedule for the adverts. Examples like this show how social media posts can make a difference to more than just the managers behind the profiles.

Despite all the challenges, there are also opportunities; the value that can be gained from learning from and interacting with customers using social media can make the occasional “you suck” tweet worth it. As more and more customers come online and join social networking sites, the expectations around customer service are changing, and they need to be where their customers are. Even if those customers aren’t always spreading the most positive messages to their extended social networks about the food they bought for lunch or the price of their data bundle.

“There really isn’t a bad post or a bad comment,” says Berman-Jacob. “Knowing what the customer thinks allows us to be innovative. If it’s negative, it allows us to improve. That’s a good thing.”



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