Back in November 2010 I attended a Garner conference to speak about Gov 2.0. I was also able to attend a workshop about social media use in the banking industry.
At the time I estimated that the banking industry was 2-3 years behind government in their social media effectiveness.
That impression has been reinforced this weekend with the reaction of Westpac to negative comments on their Facebook page - and how effective the bank's strategy has been.
Westpac has been taking heat for two decisions, to cut staff and to raise variable home loan interest rates by 0.1%.
Both staff and customers have vented their concerns on Facebook, commenting on Westpac's page.
The reaction from Westpac, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, has been to delete negative comments, with the company claiming that,
''partisan views'' could deter customers from researching its financial products on social media sites.This strategy is fraught with risk. Deleting comments only incenses people and can cause them to escalate legitimate concerns through other channels, which can be more damaging for an organisation.
In fact this has already happened for Westpac, with the Financial Services Union having established their own Facebook page, Save Westpac Jobs, where Westpac's customers and staff can voice their concerns.
It is important for organisations to remember that the channels they create or manage are not the only place people may gather and discuss issues. If a company pushes people away from the channels they control or influence, they lose influence over their customers, who might end up in a far more extreme place.
Given the conversation on Westpac's Facebook page, the company appears to have stopped deleting these comments - which is a good sign. The question now is what should they do with upset customers.
I think there's a good opportunity here for Westpac to learn from Laurel Papworth's 8 ways to deal with negative comments in online communities.
The strategy I would select for Westpac would be to Educate - deflect concerns into a separate channel where they can be addressed separately to the discussion Westpac wishes to have on its Facebook page.
Handled correctly, Westpac could listen closely to upset customers and discuss with them possible solutions - refinancing, different loan types or other approaches that would result in a win-win for the bank and the customer. The same approach can be used with staff.
A second example of a dangerous decision in social media was by Woolworths, as highlighted in Mumbrella's article, This weekend Woolworths can’t wait to give everyone an opportunity to give them a massive kicking.
Apparently Woolworths thought it would be a good idea to run an event on Facebook asking people to complete the statement,
"Happy weekend everyone! Finish this sentence: this weekend, I can't wait to: ____________"This is similar to Qantas's recent QantasLuxury competition on Twitter, where Qantas basically gave an opening to people to unleash their repressed concerns at Qantas grounding its fleet and any other concerns they had with the company.
Equally, and predictable, that's what happened to Woolworths. With 472 comments and climbing, there's a range of viewpoints, with many negative towards the company.
Organisations need to be careful when giving the public openings like this. They need to consider what other influences are at work, media coverage about their company and any current sources of customer concerns reported through other channels.
Organisations can, and should, participate with customers online via social media. However they should consider social media in light of other channels and customer engagements and not expect their online customers to exist in a vacuum.
These emerging case studies both have some time to run before we see how they end up, however they already demonstrate lessons for other organisations - including for government.
Don't shut down negative conversations, engage, educate and be constructive.
Treat social media within the framework of all your communications and current events. Be careful inviting customer views when they will be shaped by major events or perceived issues with your brand.
Most of all, keep listening and talking to your customers and stakeholders. Being absent from a discussion only removes your influence.