Monthly active users of Facebook numbered 1.1 billion in May. In only its seventh year of existence, Twitter boasts 640 million accounts and more than 400 million tweets per day.
No doubt people are talking. What they have to say and the conversation they create are of supreme importance to businesses.
What the frack?
As the former head of the digital communications department for Chesapeake Energy, E. Blake Jackson’s job was to monitor the online conversation taking place regarding the second-largest natural gas producer in the country.
And working for an energy company that pumps a questionable substance into the ground to harness a coveted natural resource, that conversation wasn’t always a chipper one.
“We saw a lot of negative posts, a lot of vitriol and some personal insults,” Jackson said. “The philosophy that I had and what governed my approach was we wanted to try and give every voice in this space a feeling of respect and that we care about their point of view, even if it is insulting or opposes our point of view. In social media, the opportunity for conversation to escalate is so easy.”
How important is that online conversation to businesses like Chesapeake, which had an operating capital just north of $4 billion in 2012?
Jackson said when he exited Chesapeake last year, a national media team of eight were monitoring Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and a handful of online communities that totaled up to 25 accounts.
It was their job to make sure that chatter surrounding the company and the industry stayed positive — or at least manageable.
reality is the number of people on the extreme side of either end of an
issue is a relatively small number,” Jackson said.
“Most people are in the middle and are scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss is about. Managing conversations online, the key is to try the best you can to represent the rational middle because that’s where most people are.”
Last year, to coincide with Red Carpet Car Wash’s 40th anniversary, the company begrudgingly entered the world of social media.
Cathy Roberts, Red Carpet’s general manager since the mid-1990s, said owners knew enough about social media to know they didn’t know enough to run it themselves. They hired a public relations professional to monitor the page, post new items and keep the tone upbeat.
Roberts was appalled when she saw a customer post a very unflattering “after” picture of a car. “She didn’t ask for a manager or anything. She used it as a way to make us look bad, and that’s the downside,” she said. “I don’t feel like she used Facebook in a way to resolve her problem.”
And therein lies the rub of the Internet flame — the term used to describe bashing or hostile online interaction.
“Social media can be a double-edged sword,” said Lisa Liebl, a local PR consultant. “For all the free advertising, marketing and promotion used to build identity and relationships, it can just as quickly turn on your brand."
With 20 years spent in television, public relations and marketing, she learned a key tenet as pertinent to the Internet today as it was to businesses 50 years ago: Never respond in anger.
“Don’t allow yourself to be emotionally hijacked,” Liebl said. “You can’t control others’ behavior and words, but you can definitely control your own. Stop, step back and breathe. Take the comments into consideration, and come up with a real resolution.”
That’s what Roberts and Red Carpet did. The company reached out to the customer via its Facebook page. They promised to make it right. Other longtime customers saw that and countered with several positive comments.
Jackson said the Facebook newbies got it right.
“When somebody posts a negative out there for everyone to see, that can be a potential negative,” said Jackson, now vice president of digital for Saxum, an advertising and PR agency. “What businesses have to understand is it will also be out there for everyone to see so if you respond with tact and grace and if you understand and make it clear it’s OK to be held accountable ... you can really blunt the force.”
Put a hashtag on it
When 17-year-old Lorelei Decker learned she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma growing inside her, she turned to social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to expand her world and connect with others going through the same thing.
Then doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center concluded that the chemotherapy had failed to arrest the onslaught of cancer and a stem cell transplant was the girl’s only hope. The Deckers tweeted about it.
When their insurance company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, deemed the procedure “not medically necessary” and refused to pay for it, the Deckers put a hashtag on it.
“All hell’s about to break loose,” Andrea Decker tweeted. “BCBS DENIED Lorelei’s transplant. No words for how angry I am. I guess it’s cheaper to let her die.”
“Someone suggested it. Put a hashtag on it,” she recalled. “Then it looked like a lot of people were going to retweet it.”
“People love to join together to hate a common enemy,” Decker continued. “There’s nothing more unifying. We just put a hashtag on it: #ApproveLorelei.”
On that day, social media became a public shaming ground.
And shamed the insurance provider was. One-hundred thirty-one characters changed the Deckers’ outlook on their daughter’s life.
“That’s what’s amazing,” Andrea Decker said. “Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma reversed their decision in less than 24 hours, and absolutely no new information came to them between the time they denied her life-saving transplant and the time they approved it, other than Twitter.”
The Deckers were informed of the decision by their doctor in Texas that day. A couple weeks later, BCBS sent them a letter in the mail.
People are listening
The consensus in the business community is that social media has the greatest potential when used for good. And companies that are the best at it are the ones constantly listening to the conversation.
“Businesses now have the opportunity to participate in the customer conversations about their products and services,” said Kym Koch, principal of Koch Communications.
The media, public relations and digital relations firm monitors more than 120 social media accounts ranging from the entertainment industry to government agencies.
“On behalf of our clients, we are in the channels to answer questions about a product or service, solve problems or provide other timely, relevant information, including discounts or specials that can drive traffic to their website or storefront. We also are able to collect information specific to the customer — all in real time and all with measurable results.”
When Jackson pulled up to his Airbnb rental in Austin, Texas, for this year’s South by Southwest festival, he quickly discovered the home’s owner had forgotten to tell his neighbor about the arrangement.
It led to an awkward face-to-face confrontation that Jackson tweeted about after he had settled in.
Within 30 minutes, he had a response from Airbnb, an online service connecting people with space to rent with short-term renters, asking if the company could help.
A week later, Jackson returned to his office and had a package with a Theodore Roosevelt bobble-head doll and a thank-you note enclosed.
“Personally, I’m a huge Teddy Roosevelt fan, and I’ve said that in my social media presences,” Jackson said. “They dug into my social profile, and they found out what I was into. They sent something that was meaningful to me. I’ve told that story probably 50 times, and now I’m telling it to you.”
The retelling — or retweeting — of those stories is what makes social media so powerful.
Do it right and it can reap immeasurable benefits. Do it wrong and it can have the opposite effect.
And that power is not lost on Andrea Decker.
“I think it will be possible for us to look back one day and say Twitter may have saved our daughter’s life,” she said.