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Why do companies respond to tweets anyway?

by Nigel Hollis | June 27, 2011

I have been on Twitter for a while but I am still struggling to see its value. I am not following that many people but enough that keeping up with their output is like drinking from a fire hose. But there is one reason to keep my account. Apparently complaining on Twitter is the best way to get a company’s attention these days. Never mind whether you are a valuable customer or not, a tweet gets you the attention you think you deserve.

Ignoring the fundamental issue that these companies would be far better off trying to avoid the situation where people become frustrated enough to vent online, I can’t help thinking that the fact that so many companies are reputed to respond more rapidly to tweeted complaints, compared to those received through other communication channels, is rather short-sighted.

Why are people that tweet, so much more important than people who post on Facebook, pick-up the phone, or talk face-to-face to a company representative? (What? Talk to someone? Hell no!)

Of course, one answer to the question is that these people are, supposedly, more “visible” than your average whiner. The guy standing at the check-in desk, shouting because his flight has been cancelled, is only heard by the rest of the people waiting patiently in line for their turn. The “Tweeter” on the other hand is going to be heard by…well, just who is he or she going to be heard by?

Less than one in 10 online users in the U.S. has an active Twitter account. And according to an estimate last year made by Barracuda Labs, 79 percent of Twitter users are inactive – they have less than 10 followers, follow less than 10 people and have tweeted less than 10 times.

So that pretty much guarantees that most complaining tweets are going to disappear into the void, EXCEPT when people search for a specific topic. I don’t know about you, but I don’t search for irate tweets about delayed flights, customer service screw-ups or the like. But you know who does, don’t you? That’s right, the people who are paid to keep any eye on the Twittersphere on behalf of the company in question.

With apologies to Winston Churchill, I can’t help feeling that never in the world of customer relations has so much attention been paid by so many to so few. It seems unfair to the rest of us who prefer less chaotic communication channels. Maybe we should start a Twitter campaign to change the situation.

So, what do you think? 140 characters or more please.


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  1. Clarissa, January 07, 2013
    I've been looking at analysis about Twitter recently. I wonder how this medium would have changed a year after.

    It's interesting to note a case in the Philippines where 2 rival telecoms giants have heavily made Twitter a battle ground.

    Globe Telecom initiated a system upgrade on the second half of 2012 which *they promised* would give subscribers a better network come 2013 as they introduce LTE. But during the system upgrade, their service got really bad that people kept complaining about it on Twitter overwhelmingly.

    Smart Communications, the rival, took this opportunity to develop campaigns around the complaints, taking insights from the whiner subscribers of their rival network. They developed the multimedia campaign "Time to Change. Live More." They also launched an army of Twitter agents to talk to the people complaining, encouraging them to switch networks.

    I don't know if there's data about how many have switched networks since then. I'm a Globe subscriber and I whine sometimes (to which Globe Twitter Agents actually respond to). But it's hard to change mobile networks because you have to change your number or they tie you up with a 24-month lock in plan (with which I still have about 7 months to go). Haha.

    It got to the point where I did consider seriously to just pay-off the plan. It would be interesting though how it turned out for the rest of the subscribers.
  2. Dominic, December 23, 2011
    The UK comedian Alan Davies recently had a bad experience with Qantas airlines. He has been tweeting about it regularly since, but quantas don't seem to be responding.

    Since Alan has a certain fame, and people are retweeting his complaints (which are quite funny) it will be interesting to see if Qantas do eventually respond.
  3. Kathryn Kure, July 18, 2011
    Fair comment! Pesky people - just never work in silos as if they were in an experimentally controlled situation - really! you'd think they'd had learnt by now they were units of analysis. That said, I realise I should have placed the emphasis on the PR person rather than the consumer, that because tweets are so readily public and so easily searchable (especially by the employer of said PR person/consultancy), if I were a PR consultant - would I respond more readily to anything on that platform. Most indubitably, yes - nothing quite like being hauled onto the carpet as to why you did not respond to a 1am tweet by the person who has employed you to make good magic for the company. As to whether the effect may be bigger and quicker on Twitter - possibly. As to no effect - your comments are absolutely valid. 
  4. Nigel, July 11, 2011
    Thanks for the comments Jackie, your comment is in line with that of many others. Not all companies follow or care about tweets.
    Kathryn, thank you for one of the longest comments I have ever seen! Nice to see that there is still a role for long form communication online. To summarize it seems to me that you are suggesting that the immediacy of Twitter provides an outlet for emotionally-directed venting. Fair enough, but I am not sure that qualifies it as being so different from any other channel that companies should pay that much more attention to it (other than the ease of searching).
    The campaign against NOTW is reminiscent of the Rage Against The Machine campaign against the X-Factor. Both tapped into an underlying societal tension - the concern that "big business" is manipulating events for its own ends. Oh, except, RATM  was largely focused around Facebook. Truthfully, I think both examples are very unusual demonstrations of activism and the channel involved has less to do with it than the passion evoked by the issue. To lay all of the credit at the door of Twitter is to ignore the amazing degree of coverage in traditional media. Scenting blood, piranha-like, they were more than happy to help rip NOTW apart.
    So to conclude, I do not doubt the power of Twitter as a comms channel. I do doubt whether it deserves more attenion from marketers than any other channel.
  5. Kathryn Kure, July 10, 2011

    Your question regarding why tweets resonate more, and have more traction with advertisers than communication from other kinds of platforms is one worth mulling over.


    Fortunately, however, real life often intervenes to help. I was utterly transfixed over a 24 hour period by the most unlikely band of heroes since Tolkein designated the Hobbits as Ring-Bearers (I include Bilbo and Sam) and then assembled a team of more likely heroes to support them. Nothing quite like the Alison in Wonderland scenes of Empires crumbling, Parliamentarians comprised, Police conspiring – and the utterly unexpected but delightful spectacle of an erudite, quick-thinking, and fast-talking Hugh Grant tossing out glorious phrases such as “degrading sycophant” in a manner both charming and insouciant. Not to mention the vociferous condemnation of bloggers on Mumsnet (Mumsnet?) by a Times editor upbraiding all the yummy mummies for bringing the News of the World down, which article cites how it was the accompanying Twitter campaign that was seen to do the real damage with advertisers, who, considering the News of the World now a “toxic” brand (to cite Rebekah Brooks) ended up pulling out their advertising.


    Underlying it all, of course, is meticulous ground-work undertaken by Nick Davies, investigative reporter for the Guardian newspaper, supported by parliamentarians such as Tom Watts and many, many others. However, what is so utterly fascinating is that the tipping point came and the News of the World was shut down on the back of a Twitter campaign, generated by ordinary mortals, none of whom have the 2,802,105 followers of Stephen Fry (and those who wish Stephen Fry to link to their URL can expect it to crash with 500 000 hits within two hours). However, this Twitter campaign by ordinary mortals, with large but not gigantic followings, called, Follow the Money as described here by Melissa Harrison, wrought almost immediate results, as evidenced by the list of advertisers bowing out of NOTW. Over an astonishingly short period of time, almost all the advertisers chose to pull out their advertising from NOTW.


    But why was Twitter used so extensively, as opposed to Facebook, or any other platform, particularly since so many involved were themselves bloggers? There are two parts to this answer: the first is how it works, and the second is why.


    In terms of the how there is something just so utterly static about the NOTW Facebook advertiser boycott page in comparison, and this post about twitter as king of news-breaks is cited since it makes such sense, but I also think it needs further interrogating as to the reasons as to how the platforms differ.


    Twitter offers four things in comparison to Facebook: tweets are a) immediate & live, b) pretty much irrevocable (and if you are ever in any doubt in this regard that an ill-considered thought may be forever dredged out from the cyber-annihiliation to which you attempted to condemn it and which will haunt your cyber-life forever, the cautionary tale of the "Cisco Fatty" should disabuse you in this regard). Furthermore, any tweet is c) public (including full searchability) – but, to a limited extent, there is the possibility of being d) anonymous. In fact, an ex News of the World journalist set up a twitter account as ExNOTWJourno, but after only a day of tweets, s/he remained jittery enough about his/her identity being discovered, or had sought legal advice, and the page was deleted, but then again, many ordinary people would who possibly want to adopt an online persona would not hassle too much about being found out, it’s not industrial espionage they are undertaking, merely persona manifestation. But at a level, Twitter does regain for us the potential of being like the dog in the famous cartoon: "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog", while the ‘reality check’ cartoon given below shows what happens in the newer world of social media (where you are absolutely a known entity), since a real problem involved in speaking truth to power is that it does have implications - some have lost jobs as well as careers. 


    However, given that many, probably most campaigners were happy not to be anonymous, after all, mummy bloggers don’t have their jobs on the line, and others, such as Hugh Grant, were happy to take whatever came his way, in his article in the New Statesman, he says to the former NOTW features editor he is bugging, when told he needs to care about his public image, contradicted him with the answer: “I got arrested with a hooker and people still came to my films”.


    But to get back to campaigning: the attributes of live, immediate data, publicly available and searchable, with statements that you commit to, mean that when a sudden call for action arises, it is the go-to platform. (Of course, Facebook is public – particularly if you do not enable your privacy settings, but it has been pretty much a silo – admittedly an immense silo – but you cannot search, for instance, for subjects such as “News of the World” in its domain, but rather for persons who may or may not have posted anything, so not the easiest campaign instrument).


    But to come back to the attributes of: immediate, public, committed. So what are we looking at? The most telling phrase for me came from Melissa Harrison, initial organiser of the Twitter campaign (and a free-lance writer) who writes in the Guardian: "But on Monday night, years of irritation were transformed into rage for me" by evidence of the Milly Dowler hacking.


    Where do we find a similarity to her “years of irritation transformed into rage”. Ah! But of course – William James, talking of dramatically falling out of unrequited love. He writes, “At last, not gradually, but in a sudden crisis, the unstable equilibrium is resolved, and this happens so unexpectedly that it is as, to use the writer’s words, ‘some outside power laid hold. ’”  We find instances of such sudden, decisive moments in so much of great literature – Austen writing of the sudden moment when Emma’s heart and mind are suddenly laid open to her – or, in cognitive neuroscience when a ‘gestalt’ forms, or as Damasio put it: “The relation between background feelings and drives and motivations is intimate: drives express themselves directly in background emotions and we eventually become aware of their existence by means of background feelings”.


    So, now, at precisely a moment of revolutionary crisis within an individual, in which “utter revulsion” (her words) is registered, a sudden motivation occurs, a decision to do something about it. So then, she immediately and decisively starts tweeting, finds out, through using search and other facilities, others of like mind or decisions, those for whom too, a decisive shift in consciousness has occurred and then, thanks to tweets and retweets and replies and searches – they find themselves part of a community, a call to action is initiated, momentum builds, campaigns are generated, media cross-linked – voila!

    Melissa Harrison notes, "It's times like this when Twitter really comes into its own. As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it's easy to share information and ideas. And because it's all so public, it's very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric." (though she also notes there is much clutter and idle chatter found in Twitter too). 

    Of course, she may not have found an audience at all – many others may not have cared as she did or made a similar decision to the one she did. However, since there were clearly others outraged out there, all it took was a few to initiate it, but there still has to be a sense of genuine outrage, since I am reminded at this point of Stanley Milgram’s book, Obedience to Authority, where he did everything conceivably possible to try and increase the rate of those who would go against “authority” and they remain depressingly low. But if the outrage (or other positive emotion) is strong enough and sustained by enough others out there, a few tweets can be the match that lights the fire.


    (In an interesting aside – the Dominos Pizza campaign was pretty much one of where the focus group participants “speak truth to power” and their immediate reaction when presented with the head chef is one of embarrassment that they are called to corroborate their words, but is a large part of why it worked so well).


    Anyhow, so this is the point at which Twitter it can become glorious – or serious – depending on whether you celebrate the joyous rights of the masses in action or are perturbed by the power they can wield upon your empire, but I guess it all just depends on whether they uplift your brand or upbraid it.

    However, I do think tweets resonate differently, because they are more public, more live, and hence often demonstrate more commitment or conviction than other forms of social media and hence there can be a different resolution or motivation involved when engaging with issues/brands/etc.  

    As to when, then, a brand would know whether a tweet excoriating its brand is just evidence of someone blowing off steam, where their tweet is like a small stone thrown into the ocean, soon to disappear, never to be retrieved, or whether, like a stone idly thrown into the African undergrowth, it startles an entire herd of antelope to thunder out – “Ah! Such is indeed the question. ‘That is the question’”  (Flaubert).

  6. Jackie, July 08, 2011
    I was having a problem with a retailer, who seemed to have lost track of my furniture order, according to each person that I spoke to at the store.  I decided to post my issue on Facebook to see if I could get some closure that way.  My post was quickly deleted from the retailer's page and I received no response at all!  So this method was not effective for me.

    Maybe I was not perceived to be influential enough to matter.  Perhaps the number of followers or friends a poster has (thus their larger sphere of influence) dictates the response from this particular company.
  7. Nigel, June 29, 2011
    Hi Dan,
    Thank you so much for joining the conversation!
    Now, of course, you should know that everything is shareable these days, so no reason to keep your opinions private. I totally agree that Twitter, Google+, Facebook, etc. offer really interesting potential for brands. So why then do so many companies treat them like just another advertising medium without thought to what they are trying to achieve and how best to do so? I too want to help brand owners make the most of these media channels but does that mean I have to accept every lame attempt to gain attention and drive sales when these media are patently better used in more subtle and dare I say it social ways?
  8. Dan, June 29, 2011

    Hi Nigel,

    I passionately believe that there are many exciting new channels including Twitter and Facebook that represent huge and various risks and opportunities for brands, and I'd like everyone to know that MB embraces the new world of brand-building and wants to help brand owners make the most of it.


  9. Nigel, June 28, 2011
    Hi Ed and Matt,
    Thanks for the comments.
    Matt, thanks for bringing this back to a real example, very much appreciated and I am glad you agree on the basic point that I was trying to make with this post: all customer feedback is equally important irrespective of the channel.
    Unfortunately some of my colleagues think that posts like these cast Millward Brown in an unfavorable light, i.e. old fashioned. But instead of tweeting, commenting on LinkedIn, Facebook or this blog they sent me an e-mail. Should I pay less attention to the feedback since it came in the form of an "old fashioned" e-mail? I don't think so. Still, it would be good to hear from them here don't you think?
  10. Matt, June 28, 2011
    This is a valid point. About two years ago, someone ranted on Facebook about one of our clients. They are a fast-food restaurant, although if you ask them they'll say they're a Quick Service Restaurant. Anyway, they apparently got his order wrong at the drive through, and upon arriving home, let rip a massive rant. We responded, asking him if there was anything we could do. He laughed and wrote that he was just ranting, he didn't know anyone was listening.

    As you correctly point out, people were and increasingly are. If a brand is only listening to respond to complaints they aren't taking advantage. An individual tweet or FP post should have a response strategy, but a collection of posts can tell a story about the brand. Or maybe not, but in planning what is our brand sessions, what people say is valuable.

    Should you respond faster? Not really. Should you respond the same way on Twitter as on the phone? Yes.  
  11. Ed C, June 27, 2011
    I agree it's unfortunate, but if a twitter post is going to make news, someone should be monitoring/remedying it. Calling the 1-800 customer service # is not going to make CNN's front page but if it's a hot enough topic, this "new and exciting way of communication" might.

    ps - no twitter account here. Though I might start one soon just to follow myself, as I often forget where I've left my keys/wallet. Or is facebook better for that? ;)

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