The Twitter Is Mightier Than The Sword

Social media boosts consumer power…and gives brands a great channel for dialogue.

If you’re feeling hungry, a stroll down Bologna’s Via Pescherie Vecchie in the heart of the old city can be exquisite torture.  Along the full length of a narrow pedestrian street, tier after tier of glorious, fresh fruit and vegetables are arrayed outside the many gourmet shops. Inside, you can see walls lined with aged Parma hams and towering piles of huge drum-like Parmesan cheeses.

The tourists admire and take photos, but it’s when a local steps in to negotiate that the street theatre really takes off. In a rapid torrent of Italian, she seems to be criticising the quality of the food (or perhaps the prices – it’s not easy to follow). The shopkeeper defends his reputation indignantly. The whole brouhaha rises to a climax…then subsides, with a deal struck and smiles all round. You, the onlooker, have been an important part of the scene. The shopper knew the shopkeeper would be motivated to give a good impression in front of an audience by making a concession. He knew that turning a complaint into a smile would bring more customers in.

So when people claim that social media has revolutionised the relationship between consumer and brand, and put power back in the hands of the former, it’s more accurate to say that it has revived an age-old tradition. Public dialogue. Only instead of happening out on the street, it’s happening right across the world in the virtual marketplace.

That’s why when Centigrade Vice President had a mild beef recently about Delta’s Sky Club breakfast facilities, he didn’t send an email to ‘customer services’ or hang on a phone line listening to holding muzak while being told, ‘your call is important to us…’. Instead, he posted a picture on Twitter with a friendly message. ‘Congratulations on the extremely seamless move to T2&3 at LAX’ he started. ‘However, someone forgot to bring the high-speed toaster from the Sky Club and we’re once again stuck with this dial-up version. I expect flight delays are due to slow toasting…please upgrade’.

Credit to Delta, they came right back, ‘Thanks for the feedback – we’ll be sure to pass this info to our team.’ Sure enough, a few days later the new toaster was in place. Martin posted: ‘Thank you @Delta. Normal high-speed toasting has been resumed.’

Interactions like this are far more likely to yield a positive result than a template reply. They give brands a chance to show a human side; to ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to living up to their stated values. Get it wrong, or ignore the feedback, and you have a potential PR disaster on your hands.

Get it right, and you can get a good result out of the most dissatisfied of customers. Like when a Twitter user complained to UK food retailers Sainsbury’s. ‘Dear Sainsbury’s. The chicken in my sandwich tastes like it was beaten to death by Hulk Hogan. Was it?’

Someone at Sainsbury’s PR went for broke. ‘Really sorry it wasn’t up to scratch. We will replace Mr Hogan with Ultimate Warrior on our production line immediately.’

A complaint, a riposte, an audience and smiles all round. Social media may be relatively new, but the shoppers in Via Pescherie Vecchie already know how it works.