Blogs, online forums and emerging communications tools like Twitter make it just as easy for customers to punish companies as to give them props.
Their wide-open and highly public nature is why so many companies continue to struggle with social media channels, as I wrote last spring. In that post, I cited a so-called Web riot that occurred when digg.com attempted to censor some user comments.
More than a year later, a growing number of companies are beginning to heed the lesson. ABoston.com story quotes Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff, author of "Groundswell":
We're in a world where one person, by their actions, can make a company look bad, and it can get echoed and amplified over and over again. The power has shifted, [so] that big companies now have to be worried about one individual with a microphone called a blog.
(You'll have to submit to a free registration process to read the Boston.com piece, but I think it's worth it.)
The phenomenon has led some companies to hire folks specifically designated to deal with buzz in the blogosphere and other social media channels. Southwest Airlines, for example, employs a chief Twitter officer to track Tweets and monitor a Facebook group, as well as another worker responsible for the company's image on other sites such as YouTube and Flickr and a representative who fact-checks blogs and interacts with bloggers.
Continental Airlines appeared to be taking a similarly proactive tack when I wrote about it last summer, with a marketing director who became somewhat of a customer service hero because of his willingness to address complaints on Flyertalk and other online forums. He even sets up face-to-face meetings with customers at gatherings around the country.
In what may be more than mere coincidence, Southwest is near the top of J.D. Power & Associates' customer service rankings for airlines (behind JetBlue Airways) and Continental was the No. 2 legacy airline (behind Alaska Air), reports Forbes.
Other companies employ specialists like TNS Media Intelligence Cymfony, which track blogs and social network sites to monitor online brand perception. (No doubt this is why I hear from so many PR folks who claim to be regular readers of mine and who want to hook me up with their clients, who are light years ahead of competitors I mention in a post.)
Cymfony's CMO says that many folks post harsh comments online not out of anger but out of a desire to improve a company's performance. He says:
Yeah, they're upset; yeah, they're angry; yeah, they feel like they've been treated unfairly - but they want to give the company a chance to fix it.
Sometimes it even works. The article mentions that Dell has implemented 50 of the 9,000 customer suggestions offered on the IdeaStorm.com Web site that it rolled out in early 2007. The Society for New Communications Research recently lauded the PC manufacturer's Dell Outlet, which sells refurbished gear, for using Twitter to alert folks to special offers.