Guys, people are using social media to get airlines (and other companies) to more quickly respond to their complaints and The New York Times is on it.
To be fair, there are some good points in the story about the state of how airlines are handling customer complaints, conversations and comments on social media. But the story struck me and a few others from my generation of marketing professionals as slightly odd, largely because it reminded us so strongly of stories we’ve been reading since roughly 2004, not just about airlines but other companies as well.
If you don’t know about “Dell Hell,” Jeff Jarvis’ long-running series of blog posts chronicling his issues first with a Dell machine and then the PR/marketing hornet’s nest he disturbed, you should look into it. That was all the way back in 2005, when many companies were still needing to be convinced blogs and the people who wrote them were worthy of any sort of attention. Social media as we now know it was still two or three years out, blog monitoring was done through RSS feeds or manual Google/Technorati searches and the idea of influencer marketing was still in its larval stage.
A number of other cases like Jarvis’ popped up over the next few years, with someone feeling the best thing to do with the bad experience they’d had with an airline, technology company or other corporate entity was to write a blog post or seven about it. These usually started with some form of statement of humility along the lines of “I don’t consider myself a big deal and don’t’ want to throw my weight around, but I have to tell you about…” Those were then followed with a blow-by-blow retelling of what had happened.
In 2005, while I was still with Bacon’s Information (now Cision USA), I gave presentation to a PRSA group in, I think, Little Rock, about how customer service and marketing was changing with the emergence of self-publishing on blogs. One slide featured an old-fashioned telephone receiver on the left and a megaphone on the right. My point was to say that the first was how issues used to be dealt with, in a one-to-one situation, while the second was how they were dealt with now, broadcast for the whole world to potentially see.
Social media platforms coming on the scene only made that more true, mainly because the barrier to entry and participation was lowered significantly and the pressure of maintaining social connections made participation all but mandatory. That was a big change from blogs, which were still relatively time-consuming to start and maintain. Now people had easy to use platforms on which to share their thoughts and opinions about the things they were buying, the experiences they had and more.
That we’re into our second decade of this being is barely mentioned by the NYT. American Airlines is said in the story to only have been running social-based customer service since 2012. And one marketing executive is quoted as saying the space has evolved significantly in the last 18 months. Both those may be accurate, but they’re also slightly off-putting.
2012 is at least half a dozen years too late for a company of any size to have begun seriously monitoring and responding to comments and criticisms made online. Teams may have scaled since then, but that’s still well behind the curve. I’ve been reading about online “war rooms” – an overly-dramatic label applied to the teams devoted to monitoring Technorati or Tweetdeck or other tool for response situations – since at least 2007 or 2008.
One area where the story is spot-on is that it takes a finely-tuned mix of instincts, insights and experience to be an effective person behind the scenes. You have to trust when the hair on the back of your neck stands up when reading a comment that may otherwise seem innocuous and start tracking it, knowing when to respond, in what matter, with what tone and with what message.
Importantly, you also have to know when not to respond. While some social media gurus and consultants have long preached the false gospel of 100% response rates, not everyone needs that. Some people are just blowing off steam and some are so fervent in their opinions no amount of reasonable corporate feedback is going to appease them. They just want to be angry and sometimes you need to let them, right up to the point where it becomes the flashpoint for a larger problem.
That kind of decision making ability takes some experience and requires trust on the part of everyone involved. The person with their fingers on the “Reply” button needs to be trusted by those higher up.
Similarly, this story about the history of podcasting comes off as quite tone deaf for those of us who lived through the period where podcasts were difficult to access as well as the years between that and the launch of “Serial,” when the format all of a sudden gained widespread media attention. Of particular note is this passage, which comes after all sorts of throat clearing:
In the first years of podcasts, a decade or so ago, technological limitations militated against their widespread adoption: they had to be laboriously transferred from a computer to an MP3 player or an iPod. Podcasts were made by geeks, for geeks. That changed in 2014, when Apple added a Podcast app to the iPhone, making subscribing almost effortless. Even better, it was usually free.
Now it’s true that podcasting has long been a niche format. A recent study showed the audience only just became somewhat representative of the U.S. population’s overall demographics. And it’s certainly receiving more attention from both media outlets and advertisers.
While it’s true Apple’s Podcast app is only a few years old, Apple began supporting podcasts through iTunes in 2005, meaning you no longer had to “side load” MP3 files to your player through a cumbersome technical process.
When Serial debuted a few years ago and everyone began taking podcasts seriously and treating it like a new phenomenon it was a bit shocking to those of us who had been listening for a decade already. We wondered where everyone had been.
Both of these stories share one basic problem, other than making me feel ridiculously old: They both come from the place of believing the world was formed only after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Neither social media customer service or podcast popularity are new. Neither was ripped from the thigh of Zeus when Barack Obama made his first inauguration speech.
Having some context and sense of history, all of which is easily researchable online, helps create a more complete picture of the story at hand, making it stronger, not weaker.