Brands learning how to cope with web criticism

07 October 2009

NEW YORK: Companies including AT&T, United Airlines and Kraft have all been forced to respond to a range of negative opinions expressed by consumers on portals such as YouTube and Twitter, demonstrating how these services are exerting a profound impact on customer relations.

In a recent assessment of how some of the world's biggest brands are utilising social media, the Altimeter Group reported that Starbucks and Dell were among the best performers on this emerging platform.

With regard to responding to a crisis using these tools, Jeremiah Owyang, customer strategy partner at the consultancy, has now outlined three possible approaches for marketers.

They can “ignore it and do nothing at their own peril”, be “responsive but not necessarily in control”, or attempt to “assert themselves and be proactive – even during a crisis,” he argued.

Earlier this year, AT&T, the telecoms giant, faced substantial criticism regarding the coverage quality of its wireless service, particularly among iPhone owners in New York and San Francisco.

In response, it produced an online video, entitled Seth the Blogger Guy, where a member of staff from its PR agency, Fleishman-Hillard, attempted to directly address their concerns.

"We see the discussions on the web, on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, so we thought it would be a good idea to take what is being said head-on," he said in the clip, which was posted on YouTube.

However, Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, said this effort was "ridiculously clinical", and "not something that says 'we feel your pain'", or which offered a spokesman who was “human and accessible."

Cisco also garnered a lot of media coverage when an intern who had been offered a job at the technology firm added a message to Twitter saying she would have to balance the “fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work."

Tim Levad, the channel partner advocate for Cisco Alert, replied to this "tweet", saying her prospective manager "would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web."

Owyang suggested this reaction was "ideal", as it "responded in an adult-like way, not trying to draw any more damage to this young woman."

EA Sports, the video game manufacturer, saw a fault in its Tiger Woods golf game – which meant players could effectively "walk on water" – gain notoriety after footage of the error was uploaded to YouTube.

This piece of user-generated content received one million hits on the video-sharing site, and EA answered with a video of its own, apparently showing Woods achieving this feat in real life.

While Oywang described this as a "clever response", he pointed out it was "not scalable", and a fuller form of consumer engagement, perhaps through an online community, was a more realistic alternative in the long term.

Kraft, the food giant, also faced a deluge of uncomplimentary feedback from Australian netizens regarding its intention to name a new variant of Vegemite, its spread made from yeast products, iSnack2.0.

The food manufacturer thus decided to create a website asking visitors to submit their own suggestions, eliciting 48,000 entries, with the winner set to be announced this month.

A United Airlines passenger, who had his guitar broken on a flight and received little constructive help after making a complaint, took an even more direct form of action.

Dave Carroll, the customer in question, wrote a song called United Breaks Guitars, drawing ar

Data sourced from Altimeter Group; additional content by Warc staff