Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The problem with engagement? It involves other people

There have been several social media conferences recently where, from hashtag evidence, person after person stood up and urged listeners to "go where the conversation is",  "be part of the conversation" and "if your brand isn't engaging on Facebook, ask yourself if YOU aren't engaging on Facebook".

Which is all very right (although possibly repetitive) but quite often you see brands attempting to engage, and then getting caught up in a social media storm for striking the wrong note.
Remember the admittedly-baffling Greater Manchester Police tweet 'there are no excuses!' (now deleted) around the riots sentencing last year?
It saw GMP go from the Darling of Twitter for its commitment to engagement and social media to a pariah within moments and was quickly followed by...
That made it into the Guardian, no less. And yes, it was a stupid editorial to add to a tweet about a sentencing, but feeds are run by people, and people make mistakes.
This week it was London Midland having to apologise for tweets about a suicide on the line causing delays.
Among the tweets complained about was:

@louhaffner Go to the pub - things will be rubbish for at least the next hour.
— London Midland (@LondonMidland) February 12, 2012

Hmm. Maybe I'm being insensitive but I can't get exercised about that. And having looked at the London Midland Twitter page, which responds not just to @messages but also to tweets generally referencing the company, I think it's pretty exemplary and the result of decent training and, possibly, some harsh lessons.
Whoever helps run it (assuming it's a team effort) has a good line in engagement and conversation, understands hashtags, doesn't overdo the emoticons and generally sounds, well, human. All in the face of people tweeting intelligent responses such as

@LondonMidland yes you can,stop hiking the fares,have the trains on time & you would have no one jumping in front of trains. #frustration
— PIEnMASHgeezer (@PIEnMASHgeezer) February 12, 2012

Tweeting as a brand is a hard balance to strike. You need personality, but not too much, and a degree of familiarity might work some of the time but not always - or at least not always with everyone.
Some people are apparently keen to be offended, some people will respond in inappropriate ways, but expect you to remain respectful and informative.

Engaging as a news brand is an even bigger minefield. You ask a question around, say, what people would be interested in reading about and get a "Why should I do your job?" tweet back from someone.
At which point, you can either shrug and respond to those who do want to engage, or try to strike some common ground with those who prefer to complain.
The benefit of the latter could be very real... it could also end up being a mutually dissatisfying time-suck.

I've got some personal rules about responding to people who are in full fighting plumage - usually on Twitter rather than Facebook - as a brand (ie. tweeting as WalesOnline or WalesonSunday)...

1. Are they simply grandstanding? (Generally, they don't want a response, they want a reaction)
2. If they are grandstanding, who follows them? (If you're broadcasting to 3 pornbots and a couple of mates, fill your boots)
3. On Twitter, do they have an avatar or are they an egg? (Often indicative of whether they're likely to engage or not)
4. Does their tweet make any sense or are they swearing? (I won't talk to you on the phone if you swear at me, I'm not making an exception in digital life)
5. Are they agent provocateurs? (if their Twitter stream comprises complaints, whinges and attacks then there's a good chance they just enjoy annoying people)
6. Am I responding simply because the person is bone-crushingly stupid, and I'd quite enjoy smashing their point out of the park? (If yes, it's generally not worth it)

Four years ago I would have said it was wrong to have a criteria for responding to anyone online, but now I'm not so certain.
I've closed two online forums because in both cases my overstretched digital teams were intervening in rows not only between users of those communities, but with some of the community-appointed moderators. The horse hadn't just bolted, it was accelerating into the next county.
Shutting them down wasn't a decision lightly-taken - the page views were advertiser-friendly (100k+ in one case) but the spite and fighting weren't.
Getting those channels back on track might have been possible with concerted, full-time community management. Ergo, from a team manager point of view, it wasn't practical or desirable. Putting new efforts into Facebook, Twitter and site users elsewhere proved far more beneficial, and led to lessons learned and better engagement.

The beauty of social media for brands is that it brings a connection with other people.The drawback is that other people will be, well, people. Add a little anonymity, distance and the opportunity for some manufactured outrage, and the results can be illuminating.

* Update: The subject of engagement and brands has also prompted a blog post from David Higgerson. Recommended reading: SOCIAL MEDIA: THE PERILS OF GOING TOO FAR WHEN TRYING TO MAKE A BRAND INTERACTIVE
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