The power of customer advocacy in a social media crisis

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Image by PhotoGraham via Flickr

Every brand with a Facebook page is at risk of a social media crisis. It could arise from any number of scenarios - from ostensibly innocuous customer complaints to a huge backlash against your perceived values. A brand’s Facebook wall is now often the first stop for anyone wanting to make their fury known, and if word of that fury spreads you may find yourself on the receiving-end of a seemingly endless barrage of complaints.

Knowing how and when to respond is essential and we would always recommend a detailed crisis management plan and escalation policy as a top priority to any company using social media. It is not always appropriate for you to respond to comments online and a good crisis management plan will clearly lay out when you should respond (and how) and when you shouldn’t.

However, in addition to what you do and how your brand responds, the best brands in social media often don’t have to respond at all. Their advocates do it for them. There are always some issues and queries that you will need to respond to (specific details of their account, complaints about your service) but in many cases having other customers to respond instead of you (or as well as you) can be even more powerful.

There can be a temptation to think that only the most lauded brands such as Apple or Gucci have strong advocates, but this is not true. Every brand has advocates, people who are loyal to your brand, products, people or services and will go out of their way to tell others about this. Identifying your advocates is one task, you then need to cultivate and build relationships with them online.

Here are three tips of how you can build relationships with advocates online:

1. Involve them in your product development processes

When we work with advocates for brands, the thing they most often discuss is ideas for the brand. Things they know don’t always work in the product. Ways the product could be improved. Things they have seen that competitors and substitutes do. Advocates are often the people who have the deepest knowledge of your product and want to talk to you about it. If you make it easy for them to do this and give them access to real decision makers at your brand you will build huge social credibility with them.

2. Let them try new products first

Advocates want to try your products and will tell others about them. Whilst giving out endless freebies is not a sustainable or sensible policy, giving samples of products (especially new products) to those who advocate your brand makes sense. They will give you instant and honest feedback, will feel rewarded by getting access to product before anybody else, and will help you to spread the message about your product before its launched.

3. Get to know them

Finally, but most importantly, you need to get to know your advocates. Spend time talking to them and getting to know them so that you can have a conversation with them on a human level. On a Facebook page that we run for pet owners we know the names of our advocates dogs, we chat to them about what their dogs have done at the weekend and know when it is their birthdays. Why? Because we’re genuinely interested in them as people and as dog owners and want to get to know them. If you are to make the most of your advocates you have to be genuinely interested in them and in their lives. This kind of honesty will be clear to them and will mean that you can have a real interaction with them on a human level.

Using Twitter for customer service: @ChilternRailway

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Chiltern Railways cow disruptionLast night I was pleasantly surprised at how well Chiltern Railway are using Twitter for customer service.

Like many other commuters, my journey home was disrupted by cows! Even though it was a very unusual situation, I wasn’t too surprised as I’d already seen a tweet from the Chiltern Railway account before I had even left the FreshNetworks office.

As I already follow @chilternrailway , I immediately had all kinds of updates in the palm of my hand - relevant information on alternative travel arrangements and even news about the steps being taken to get the stranded passengers and train moving. I felt informed and was able to make my way home using the information they provided - while it was frustrating to a certain degree I was glad that Twitter was being used, even though it was well after office hours.

I also saw lots of engagement and individual questions being answered, and even received a personal apology in reply to one of my tweets about the disruption. The Twitter account was in full swing until about 1am this morning, and back with updates at the usual rush-hour time just a matter of hours later, all in a cheerful tone of voice and personality.

However, even as a social media advocate, it took me a while to learn that Chiltern Railway even had a Twitter account, which is a shame.  Chiltern Railway appear to be very pro-social, having given the Foursquare mayor of Marylebone the privilege of turning on their Christmas lights (which I’m hoping will be me this year!). Before seeing another commuter tweet Chiltern Railway, I was unaware that they were providing such a great service, and even using it for promotional messages and general announcements such as the introduction of a brand new train.

I think their execution of Twitter for customer service is excellent and it has changed my perception of them for the better. Chiltern Railway are the only train company I have available to me, and before following them on Twitter my perception of them was neutral at best - viewing them as a means to an end. Now, though, I feel much more involved and informed about the company and their service, and feel more forgiving when unexpected incidents like this one take place.

What I would suggest to Chiltern Railway is only a small thing - they could improve their promotion. They currently have about 2,000 followers and I imagine there are many many commuters like me who may use social channels but don’t know what they are missing.

A quick fix suggestion to this could be that the in-carriage scrolling LED signs on trains, giving a Welcome message, next stop and other stop information could have a simple ‘Follow @chilternrailway on Twitter for travel news and updates”, which would surely reach the eyes of thousands of smart-phone equipped commuters.

FreshNetworks Blog: Top five posts in January

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Image by Nomad Photography via Flickr

We’ve had a new look to the blog at FreshNetworks this month, but our aim is still the same. To bring you the best posts in social media, online communities and customer engagement online. In case you missed them, find below our top five posts in January.

1. Why the retweet is a powerful engagement tool

The retweet on Twitter, and Facebook’s new ‘via’ feature are very powerful tools in these social networks. In any online community or social network, some people are more active than others. In fact, in a natural online community we would expect that out of every 100 users, only one will originate new content. The retweet provides a way for these other users to express their opinion. Say that they agree with something that others have said or just promote content.

Social media is about more than just generating new content, people play many different roles and the retweet is a way to let people do this.

2. Social media as a crisis management tool

When crisis happens, you will typically see a lot of people discussing, debating, and complaining about your brand online. Many of these discussions will be factually inaccurate, and many will be from customers who have had bad experiences. These are the types of discussions that should be responded to, and should be responded to in the right manner.

In this post we looked at a how brands can use social media when a crisis hits, but perhaps more importantly why they should be engaging people in social media before the crisis.

3. The Economist on Social Networking

At the end of January, the Economist published a special report on on social networking.Their special report on A World of Connections, provided an excellent overview of the current state of social media for those still trying to get to grips with it. You can download a free pdf of the report here. Or check out our summary of key highlights in this post.

4. Social Media Case study: Vitamin Water’s newest flavour created by Facebook fans

Vitamin Water’s latest flavour, launching in March this year, was developed and named by the brand’s Facebook fans. The black cherry and lime flavoured drink will be called ‘Connect’ and one Facebook fan, Sarah from Illinois, won $5,000 for her role in developing this new product. In this post we look at what Vitamin Water did and how they used social media to help to test and develop a new flavour.

5. Essential reading for online community managers

There are a whole range of great books out there on how social media is used and the impact this is having on society (anything by Gladwell or Shirky would be a great starting point). In this short post, we look specifically at things that help managing and growing communities online. There are many great books, articles and blogs out there and we’d love you to share your favourites in the comments below the post. But this is a good starting point and we would consider them essential reading for online community managers.