Jan 31st, 2012 by AJ Owen
In recent years, I’ve been to various business and networking luncheons that all cry out, “Don’t be afraid to use social media.” Wrong. Based on how customers of social media products can be treated should they err, users should be very afraid or at least very careful, that trying to connect and share could leave them potentially embarrassed, negatively branded and with nothing to show for their time invested.
First let me explain a little of my background as a non-savvy social networker. I opened my Twitter account several years back, but I’ve really not used it much. With a mere 200 or so tweets under my belt and a couple dozen followers, last week was only my second attempt at trying to really use the platform. To keep social media straight, I decided some time ago to use Twitter only to give inspirational, get-you-through-your-workday quotes and heads up on APTD and Working Knowledge Radio news. I didn’t set out to build a following, just to get my feet wet in the Tweet-o-sphere and keep the account going.
Occasionally, I would get alerts that someone new was following me. Cool. But I didn’t know what to do with that information. I eventually got around to checking out a few YouTube videos and other articles. One source explained there’s an unwritten rule that people who follow you want you to follow them back. Hmm. Maybe that’s why when I’d check a week or two later – those people were no longer following me. Clearly, I don’t get the purpose of this tool, I thought. I have to learn more – when I can afford to spend the time.
Many moons later, my next level of research suggested I follow people who follow the people and topics I’m also interested in. The jist was these individuals may find my interests also interesting and follow me. Made sense to me … kinda. It was on my to-do list. Again on my to-do list. Again on my to-do list. A month or so ago, I finally logged in and rolled up my sleeves. Click, click, click. Well, somewhere between me following person 1 and like person 25 or so, I got a barely noticeable pink bar at the top of my screen. At first I thought, I’d been logged out. Nope, it read, “Your account has been suspended.” Really? Really.
I responded to Twitter’s appeal process and jumped through their hoops. Eventually my request for unsuspension was granted – after one week had passed. Twitter staff were either in no hurry or too overwhelmed with work to fix me any sooner. My experience raised two serious concerns (1) how invested we users are in social media and (2) how expendable we users seem to be in the eyes of some social media platform designers and staff. I say this because in my experience, a more user-friendly approach to deterring certain patterns of behavior could have been built into the Twitter platform, but it was not.
A customer-friendly platform is concerned that it prevents account suspensions caused by novice networking. You don’t want people to be afraid to use your service right? That would have made me feel valued as a customer. Instead I felt like I was taking a risk by investing any significant amount of time on this platform and by relying on this social network to be there for me when I needed it.
That’s a serious customer service problem for a platform that tacitly encourages constant use with almost addiction-like fervor. A platform that seems to shout, “Be on me every minute, every hour of the day!” Yet, if your account breaks – you could be forced to go off your cyber crack cold turkey – as weeks can go by. How can this be good for business? Twitter’s business or your business?
As I understand it, Twitter has been trying for years to monetize its movement. However, to fully get ready Twitter and other like-minded social networks must ramp up their policies to be more user-friendly. Specifically, they’d do well to establish a customer-focused approach to decide who gets suspended and when. A good example of this lesson learned well is with online banking accounts and other secure login platforms. We’ve all tried to login to our bank accounts only to get a gentle warning, “Sorry, your password is incorrect. Please ensure you do not have Caps Lock activated and try again. You have 4 more attempts and your account will be locked.”
The right warning verbiage puts the customer on alert, “I’m doing something wrong.” And customers can course correct before being thrown into a “bad actors queue” along with suspected computer bots and intentional rule-breakers. For banks and the like, this approach also saves consumers and their own businesses time, money and goodwill – as the banks then do not have to pay people to answer calls from irate customers who’ve permanently lost access on the first incorrect login attempt. The approach is ideal because customers experience little inconvenience.
It might be suspected that there is an element of social networking developers that aren’t so friendly toward the practice of social media being used for business. These individuals would therefore like to discourage and or eliminate users online for this purpose. But so what if people are on Twitter to promote their professional endeavors rather than merely documenting their tedium? One of the primary drivers of Twitter popularity is small and big business and their employees using Twitter as a grassroots tool for communicating with the people. Businesses and their employees are Twitter customers, too. If any of us customers make a mistake, Twitter should not kill a fly with a hammer. Give us a gentle warning that we may be doing something wrong.
Now, I don’t want to squeeze sour grape juice all over this page, but working as I do to help companies eliminate bad or broken processes that hinder productivity, this situation smacked me on the forehead as just plain wrong. Who came up with this heavy-handed policy and why? Granted you don’t want people with malevolent motives mucking up the good vibes on social media, but what about the know-nothing newbies like myself? Do we get branded as bad right along with those intentionally trying to manipulate the system? That’s no way to treat a customer! Which brings me to my next concern.
Either the powers that be at Twitter (a) don’t care about me the customer (b) don’t recognize that I am a customer or (c) need some help. That’s one of APTD’s specialties is helping businesses overcome P.E.S.T. problems – problems with people, energy, systems or technology that lead to unnecessary drama. In Twitter’s case, the unnecessary drama would most likely be unnecessary work backlogs of oodles of people requesting unsuspension or leaving Twitter altogether.
A recent article from a writer on behalf of the American Marketing Association found that some sales, but relatively few sales, have been directly attributed to the use of social networks like Twitter. And for the cost investment involved in hiring a person or spending the time yourself to learn and grow the network – the resources spent might be better used elsewhere for your business. It just makes sense to invest more time and resources in marketing efforts that are accepted as directly appealing to customers. Remember on social networking, direct marketing to customers is bad form. The expectation is you’re there to be social by connecting with people who share your common interests and to communicate with your existing customer base. It’s really not designed for soliciting customers. Those posts are highly ignorable!
Social networking for marketing can be like spending too much of your sales and marketing dollars to attend networking luncheons. You can make only so many personal connections at one event without running out of time or seeming disingenuious. And of those connections, who’s to say you’ve connected with individuals even remotely interested in furthering a business relationship with you? Of course, you won’t know until you’ve invested the time and money to go. Same with social networking, you won’t know how well it can work for you until you use it. But, please bear in mind the limited return on investment in even the best case scenarios.
This post is meant to be a cautionary tale. Tons of people use social networks with little or no problems. Because you may also feel driven to participate, it’s easy to spend lots of time building up a following and reaching out to others only to find that if the social media platform changes its rules or deems your actions done through inexperience to be intentional, malovent behavior then all the results of your invested time and effort can be zeroed out with no consequences to the social network and in just a few seconds.
In 2010, MC Hammer gave an address about social media marketing at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He chuckled as he pointed out an audience member wearing a shirt that said, “Smart is the new gangster.” Well. that’s what it felt like when my Twitter account was suspended a few months ago and probably feels that way to scores of other users labeled abusers. Youtube has numerous videos of individuals going on rants because their social network of choice has iced them out with bully-like leverage and have yet to let them back in.
Some customers are bad actors, but some just need before education and support, critical components of a good customer service program. Most social networking giants are still relatively new as companies, so a fair number haven’t fully integrated sound customer service policies as part of their machine. My hope is that as social networking companies grow up as an industry, those that have not already will embrace the importance of valuing the customer’s time and reflecting those values in their business systems and policies.
I would never have imaged that I would be forced into a holding pattern for Twitter, one that could have been easily prevented. I was in the middle of upgrading my business website and had Twitter embedded in it. But when people visited my Twitter page during the suspension, they got a message basically stating my account was suspended, so I had to put launching my site on hold while the issue was resolved. What a time sink. Any business person knows time is our most valuable commodity. And small business owners are millions strong in the U.S. If Twitter and social media platforms like it do all they reasonably can to ensure customers are not unnecessarily inconvenienced, treated as unimportant or villified, then social media could revolutionize how business is done – with heart and true connectedness.
If social media networks do not get on the “customers first” bandwagon, busy professionals who must choose between babysitting an account suspension appeal process or and who are forced to wait weeks for a customer service response may instead choose to walk away. Let’s be honest, it can be tempting to cut your losses – of friends, of information communicated and of time invested so you can find a better way to connect with your audience. A true wasted investment for you. But who knows, the social media gods may not even care that you’re gone so be careful and calculating in your use of social networks.