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The Flightpath Roundtable: Social Media & Customer Feedback

Welcome to the latest installment of The Flightpath Roundtable, where we gather various Flightpath employees for a discussion on the hottest topics in digital.

Today, we discuss the phenomenon of customer feedback via social media, and the impact it’s having on brands – in particular, the recent highly-publicized social media backlashes against Netflix and Bank of America, among others – as well as our own use of social to praise or complain about products and brand experiences.

The participants in this discussion:
Dan Brooks, Digital Marketing Manager
Denise de Castro, Director of Production
John Lee, Director of Digital Marketing and Analytics
Cliff Medney, Chief Creative Strategist
John Whitcomb, Social Media Strategist

Dan: Alright, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the relationship between social media and customer feedback, because there have been a couple of high profile cases in the last couple months where social media users have had a real impact on brand decisions even before a product is released. Things like Netflix with the whole Qwikster thing, where they ended up cancelling it based on the negative buzz online. And Bank of America with its plan to charge people just to use their debit cards, and there was such negative feedback on social that it forced them to cancel the program.

I feel like in the past, people used to vote with their dollars, and now it’s not even coming to that. It’s like before they even have a chance to do that, they’re just using their voices via social media. So I wanted to start off with your thoughts about this. Maybe it’s a new phenomenon? John [Whitcomb], you can go first.

John W: Well, you know, from personal experience, I had a Bank of America card and we switched to The Credit Union when we saw that there were [new] debit card fees. I didn’t go on and blast it in social but I did actually let the dollar speak. So, I don’t know if it’s so much a matter of people just not letting the dollar speak as opposed to kind of doing both.

I think that Facebook and Twitter give the consumers a voice that they didn’t have before and they utilize that to voice their displeasure with these companies over policies. I think the bottom line that made [Bank of America] switch is the tone of the conversation as well as the actual results from the consumers. Because I do think that a lot of people had already switched over to other banks, and they saw that, and needed to do something. So I don’t know if it’s a direct result of just the outcry on social for that particular case. I do think it’s kind of the combination of the actual results of that outcry on social that in that particular case and getting people to drop their cards.

And for Netflix, I don’t really have that much of a personal attachment to it, but I would venture to guess that it’s kind of the same. I think Netflix was scared of all the personal outcry and you know, the displeasure that consumers expressed, but I’m not sure that’s what caused them to change as much as when they actually looked at the numbers and saw that people were dropping subscriptions because they were upset.

Dan: Do you think it’s almost like the dark side of having a presence on social – maybe fans feel more connected to a brand, and when they’re offended by something, that is also amplified. You can have instant feedback with the brand on Twitter and on Facebook, and that can be positive, but you also have the negative, which can be amplified.

John W: I remember last year, I think it was Jeremiah Owyang – he gave the keynote out at WOMMA, and his main thing was how we need to train the consumer that social media is not just a complaint vehicle and that it’s not a help desk. Basically, consumers right now are being trained that if you have a problem, go to [the brand’s] social outlets, and they will resolve it. Before, it may not have been a problem that they could have gotten resolved for whatever reason, or it might have been such a small problem that they wouldn’t have bothered, and this sort of gives them a new avenue to connect to the company and get those problems fixed. And his worry is that over the next few years, consumers are only going to use social for that purpose, and instead of an actual positive engagement with the brand, and kind of learning from them, it’s just going to be a complaint hub.

Dan: When you go to a Facebook page and all that you see is people complaining about stuff, I mean, that can’t be good.

John L: Since the beginning of message boards, the Internet has always been an outlet for people to complain. People love to complain online because it’s somewhat anonymous, and it’s always been a place where people like to start flame wars and things like that. “Voice of the customer” is nothing new, but with social it just makes things a little more public. High profile platforms, ubiquitous platforms, like Facebook , Twitter…it’s not as unknown as something like, a slash-dot of the ’90s, where people complain about stuff. Most people didn’t even know what the hell slash-dot was, even though it was a great message board. But now everybody knows what Facebook is, everybody knows what Twitter is, and so there are a lot of eyeballs on it. It’s very mainstream, and so the complaints are just a little more visible for everybody. So that’s why the corporations are a little bit more aware of those complaints rather than it being placed on more unknown site.

Dan: Do you think there is an element of bandwagon jumping? With the Netflix price hike and then Qwikster announcement, the outcry was crazy. Even I wrote some blogs about it, and how I didn’t like what they were doing. Ultimately it was just about DVD rentals, and for Netflix users, it was like the world was collapsing around them.

John L: Well, that’s basically it. They saw that they were going to be charged a little bit more, so yeah, there’s going to be an outcry for that, right?

Dan: Right.

John L: I don’t think there would have been as much negativity if they were actually getting a price cut [with Qwikster]. I doubt the whole Qwikster thing would have been thrashed on the way it was, but I mean, everyone is going to complain if they have to pay a little bit more.

Denise: Well, I don’t really have much to say about the Netflix thing besides seeing it all on my Twitter feed, and it was getting very annoying because everyone just wanted to complain about it. One person starts and then everyone starts complaining about it, even if they don’t subscribe to Netflix. They just jump on the bandwagon and Tweet, “Yeah, I’m so with you on that!”

Dan: You’re very active on Twitter, right?

Denise: Yes.

Dan: And have you ever complained about anything?

Denise: Plenty. Plenty of times. I guess the first complaint I ever made was last year. And I complained to Saks Fifth Avenue because they sent me a shipment that I had to do a special order on, and I was so excited, ready to use it and then I found that the product was used. So right away, I went to Twitter, because that’s my outlet. I got a response within a couple of minutes. They had a sales associate that lived by me drop the new product at my apartment and had it all taken care of.

Dan: What was the tone of your message to them? Was it very angry or was it more calm, like, “Hey, I have a problem…”

Denise: I wasn’t swearing, for sure. [Laughs] It was calm.

John L: I remember this. I think you were like, “Ew, gross!” And you actually included a TwitPic.

Denise: Yes! I did a TwitPic of it! That’s what it was. And you know, a picture speaks a thousand words, right? So I let the picture do the talking. So then that eventually spread out.

Dan: Do you ever, on the flip side, have a good experience and let the brand know?

Denise: Yeah, plenty of times. If I have a great hotel stay, I do say that. I do a #TravelTuesday for them as well. If I have a good dining experience, that goes out on my food Twitter handle. I don’t necessarily go onto Facebook to say, “Oh my gosh, you guys are great!”

I try not to complain. I went to a conference last year. I can’t remember which, I think it was 140 Conf. or one of those other social media meetups, and they said that social media is more of a cathartic platform, because everyone can complain on it. And ever since I heard that, I was like, “Shoot! Maybe I should change the way I Tweet and not be so negative.” So I keep that in my mind. But in general, everybody just likes to complain. So sometimes I just hit that off button or use my TweetDeck to just to sort out the negative people.

Dan: For me, it’s sort of the last straw in dealing with a brand, that makes me complain on Twitter. So I don’t really do it that often. Except this one time I went to Hale and Hearty soups and I didn’t think there was enough crab in my crab soup and I complained about it. [Laughs]

Cliff, I wanted to ask you, because we’ve talked offline about New Coke, and I know you were working through that whole thing – do you think that whole debacle would have been changed in any way if, let’s say, before Coke released New Coke, they announced what they were doing and people had a chance to go online and talk about their feelings? Would it have been with the marketing blunder it became? Could it have been avoided if social media was around back then? What do you think?

Cliff: Right. I think the interesting part of the question is, they did a lot of research. You would have thought that they would have secured the kind of sentiment that most brands don’t go to the lengths, historically, but now they get it naturally through social media. Coke had 200,000 people in the queue, in terms of the quantitative range of people, they engaged. Not just quantitative, but focus groups, blind taste tests over a huge population and they thought, very projectable.

Now, because social is real time, all the time, they might not have looked at it as a research endeavor; they might have looked at it as real backlash that they had to manage, which is the difference, right? I think brands inherently look at social as something like Denise was saying: it had to be managed before it got out of hand. And Saks, which is such a premium level player, and they are under such competition, they want to make sure [the brand does not get hurt by influencers]. They might have already identified you as a taste maker, they might have known your score, and how influential you are, so all of a sudden – boom! They took care of you and the problem. Whereas in research, they talked about, you know, what happens in a customer service environment, because they do all this testing and drilling. So, I think social now, has upped the ante.

If you were New Coke all the way back when and you got a crap load of sentiment of, “You’re screwing with an American institution,” it wouldn’t have been a couple of percentage points that said that in focus groups [that was drowned out by the positive feedback]. But if people were saying that you’re messing with Americana, and then people started commenting on the comments, you could imagine it going viral and it would have made a real difference than just what goes down in focus groups.

Research is viewed, all too often still, as academic and not real world. The real versus academic is what’s social now. Really.

Denise: I can say that the use of social media, in terms of complaining or getting some sort of result, is sort of more effective than the old fashioned “picking up the phone.” Because my husband had issues with his Droid, now iPhone, and he would like, call Verizon Customer Support, over and over. He would talk to them for hours, over any given amount of time. And it got to the point where I was like, “You just wasted so much time. How many “x” dollars is that?” So he eventually Tweeted it out and then he got the issue resolved in just a couple of minutes. So hours on the phone versus a blast…it’s unfortunate that you get faster of results on social media. But you know, now all the issues are resolved. All it took was one Tweet versus many phone calls.