The Biggest Online Lessons of 2011

Written on December 06, 2011

Pull your head out of your ass before teh Internets do it for you. That’s the biggest online lesson to learn in 2011.

Oh fuck. The internet is here.

The year 2011 will go down in history as the year it became most obvious that mishandling social media can totally wreck you. A lot of companies think of social media as another channel with which you can market to people. They merely regard sites like Twitter and Facebook as a way to get more impressions for their advertising. What they often don’t seem to realize is that social media is a push-pull interaction. It isn’t just a marketing and PR channel but also a support channel and the people you interact with can respond. Furthermore, they can also take control and drive the conversation.

Don’t be a dick

Lesson 1: Don’t be a dick – especially not to popular bloggers like Jenny Lawson. This is the hard lesson learned by a representative from Brandlink Communications. When he got a snarky response after attempting to get her push a lame story on her blog, Jose from Brandlink unwisely chose to call Lawson “a fucking bitch”. The subsequent firestorm from Lawson’s 191,290 Twitter followers (and their followers, and their followers’ followers) was amazing. Her blog post on the topic received over 1200 comments. While the initial shitstorm lasted about a week, she continued getting comments on her blog posting for more a month after the initial event and last I heard, ole Jose was out of a job.

Update 12/28/2011: In another excellent example of how being a dick to customers can blow up in your face is the case of Paul Christoforo of Ocean Marketing. Christoforo, apparently a “PR” person was – unquestionably – a dick to a customer who was inquiring about the status of an order. After imploding over e-mail the story quickly went viral and Christoforo quickly lost his job and probably permanently damaged his ability to get future clients as well.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

Lesson 2: Don’t make a bad situation worse by digging in your heels in when you’re clearly wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. The true test of character is in how you deal with your mistakes. In November, high school senior Emma Sullivan put up a somewhat insulting update to her Twitter feed about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. The Governor’s office had a full-blown meltdown, demanding an apology. What Brownback’s staff probably didn’t anticipate was that the story would make its way into mainstream media – including television, radio, print, and web – and stay there a full week. On the web, the story went viral via social media. Sullivan’s Twitter followers went from 60 people to nearly 16,000 in a week and the Governor’s Twitter feed and Facebook wall filled with thousands and thousands of hostile messages from the public. A week later it wasn’t Emma Sullivan who was apologizing to Governor Brownback, but rather it was the other way around. My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize he said in a statement.

While the proper handling of the matter would have been merely to ignore Sullivan’s Tweet in the first place, Governor Brownback’s staff made matters worse by not realizing – and fast – that maybe they should back off, apologize, and move on. Instead, they dug their heels in.

Even better, get it right the first time

Lesson 3: Get it right the first time. The best way to deal with your reputation on social media is to commit yourself – at every stage in the organization – to excellent service in the first place. For many years now, companies treated their online business as separate from their other means of doing business (such as catalog and in-person). For example, last I heard, was actually a separate legal entity from Sears & Roebuck. When it comes to the public, they don’t care about this separation. Poor in-person or telephone customer service can quickly bleed over onto social media where the issue can take on a life of its own. Just ask PayPal. Though they may be unwilling to say so publicly, what was clearly a case of terrible customer service quickly turned into a mess when a PayPal employee shut down the Regretsy account, saying you couldn’t collect donations for Christmas presents for kids. In less than 24 hours, the story found its way onto other websites such as Techcrunch and Business Insider and went viral on Twitter. Wisely, PayPal chose to pull their heads out of their butts and resolved the issue relatively quickly. But it didn’t need to get that far in the first place.

I believe that we will see these types of situations playing themselves out more and more until companies realize that the best way to avoid huge, reputation damaging events like these is to ensure that customer service is given top priority at all times. With the popularity of social media and the prevalence of rating sites like Yelp, it is vital that people get the kind of treatment that they they feel they deserve. Messing that up – even for one person – could cost your company a lot of money and could cost you your job.