Sunday, February 12, 2012

Living on the edge in social media - two case studies of Australian social media issues

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.


  1. Interesting cases, Craig. Thanks.

    Thanks, too, for linking to that article on 8 ways to respond. I used several of the strategies last year when responding to questions and concerns about our monitoring of radiation reaching the US after the Japanese erathquake.

    You might interested in our guidance, which like the article is intended to help people who aren't necessarily social media-savvy deal with problems as they arise:

  2. Thanks for this post, Craig. It reminded me that social media responses are like a chess game in action. Not necessarily towards a win-lose outcome but every post leads to several possible outcomes. Like in chess, you can inadvertently give an opening to the other person. I tend to be philosophical when it comes down to this: take the moral highground, always. And take a default position of thinking better of others. Just thinking aloud. Cheers.

  3. The benefits of response models are that they remind us that different situations need a different response (and preparation before the event). Just as a general indicator, Woolies have over 120,000 like while Westpac < 2,000. At this stage the main issue for Westpac is that the story helps fuel mainstream media coverage, not the comments themselves. For the small audience on FB, Westpac might as well just have just ignored it as I'm sure they knew that nothing they did right now would be popular (i.e. FB is just reflecting popular opinion). Woolies on the other hand should have thought a little more carefully about their post as it is potentially more damaging at a grass roots level (their customers), as at this stage I don't think the traditional media has taken much notice. Woolies really didn't offer any incentive for people to post positive comments (it was in effect a competition without a prize). However, I think what will be interesting for Westpac is if any government policy makers or politicians are taking notice of that feedback and use it to justify a political response.

  4. Thanks for another great read, Craig.

    Interesting about the Woolies example: lots of Facebook brand pages ask their communities these open questions, in order to raise their engagement levels. It's a tightrope for community managers to walk: on the one hand, they're supposed to ask questions of their community (and perhaps have fun now and then).On the other hand, they then open themselves to negativity. I wouldn't like to see brand pages retreat into a shell of paranoia, but in this current environment where everyone seems to be waiting for the 'next social media disaster', it seems you have to be brave to put yourself out there! It's a case of continually monitoring your page and perhaps also expecting there'll always be a percentage of sarcasm or heat.

  5. Great post Craig. Some clear warnings over how best to approach social media.

    With the Woolworths example - I'm not so sure it isn't still an effective piece of work, but perhaps not what was intended. Yes they're picking up lots of negative comments, at least they're not deleting them and the value may comes in how they treat these. While not a scientific approach - they can gain further insight into customer issues which, if addressed, could improve the shopping experience (I use 'experience' quite broadly, especially if you shop with kids in tow).


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