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September 25, 2013

Is It Consumer Power That Takes a Quantum Leap?

Posted by Sandeep Dadlani (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:43 AM

Complaining About Big Companies On Social Media By Advertisement [Source:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i46jc2zd7h4]

Customer service representatives around the world: Your jobs just got a lot more interesting.

For those of you who haven't heard, a disgruntled man from Chicago might be the first consumer to shell out big money for a so-called "promoted tweet" - essentially a paid ad on Twitter - to gripe about a company. We've all come to appreciate the potency of social media on its own; his buying a $1,000 tweet that would be sent out to the company's 77,000 followers made his rant exponentially more powerful.

Syed Hasan's complaint was about how British Airways lost his dad's luggage during a trip to Europe and, so he claimed, was nonchalant about addressing his requests for help during the ordeal. In the old days, an unsatisfied customer could write a strongly worded latter to corporate headquarters and hope that someone within the vast corporate hierarchy would at least see the complaint. Sometimes a company, depending on its commitment to customer service, would mail the person a mea culpa in the form of a voucher or coupon in the hopes of retaining his business down the line.

But ours is not a society where we wait for a written apology to arrive in the mail several weeks on. We're all about instant gratification, and for this, a social media tool like Twitter serves us quite well. What interests me is the stratified class structure of social media citizens currently being formed. Access to a giant site like Facebook or Twitter is essentially free (although you have to pay for access to the Internet and have a device from which to input your information).

But online equality only goes so far. The real power, it now appears, rests with those digital consumers willing to pay for the privilege of widespread exposure - exposure they don't build organically but rather acquire instantly with the swipe of a credit card. They are the upper class of social media. (Not unlike flying First Class on a British Airways jetliner!)

Before we all proclaim a new level of power and influence given to the digital consumer, maybe we should pause and consider where the real power and influence rests in this new digital paradigm. According to marketing experts, a promoted tweet was originally intended by Twitter to be utilized by corporate advertisers who pay to reach a large swathe of the public. Paying for such a tweet allows the message to appear at the top of search results, among other perks.

Far from ushering in a new era of empowered consumers, what this arrangement does instead is to usher in a new era of empowered companies: those that control social media channels. I'll go one step further and argue that a non-Internet company, a venerable airline like British Airways, could in fact transform itself into a social media powerhouse by having strategies that anticipate widely read tweets from disgruntled customers. In other words, every company, no matter its sector or industry, must think like a social media company if it has even the slightest interaction with consumers. Social media must be part of its strategy, and a very proactive one at that.

Syed Hasan's initial tweet read: "Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous." Then he said he would continue tweeting until the company responded to his complaint and found his dad's lost luggage. What if British Airways had a system in place to deal with such an event? It should. It flies tens of thousands of people around the world each day and likely deals with its fair share of angry customers.

I predict that British Airways will have a more vigorous social media strategy in place after this week's events. Its marketers will find ways of nipping viral complaints in the bud so that it controls customer service situations - not the other way around. Hasan was so emboldened that when the company said he should contact them, he tweeted again, saying that they had his direct email. So they should be the ones reaching out to him. Well!

True, Hasan demonstrated consumer power. But that power derives itself from a digital strategy that anyone - or any company - can use with great aplomb. The fact that corporations have more financial resources that a single person suggests that they're soon to catch up and put an end to promoted tweets running wild.

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