Sep 2010

Consumers: biting the hand that Tweets it

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For the most part, social media benefit the majority of small businesses. They are fantastically popular with the public – but what happens when various forms of social media fall out of favour with their users? And what does it mean for small businesses?

Yesterday, social networking giant, Facebook, went off-line, leaving some users unable to use the site for up to two hours (yikes!). Facebook Software Engineering Director, Robert Johnson, reportedly said it was “the worst outage we’ve had in over four years”. Almost as soon as the site was back up and running, the backlash began. Despite Facebook offering a free and largely reliable service, public outrage at the disruption was quickly vented for all to see.

Meanwhile, many users chose to complain about the inconvenience on rival social networking site, Twitter. Customers and clients of any business can be incredibly fickle, yet the rise of social networking makes any such complaints much more public, causing potential damage to a company’s reputation.

The detrimental effect of public opinion was certainly felt by global oil company BP during the catastrophic spill off the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. In this instance, social networking websites were not the victim of negative publicity, but simply the vehicle for it. Perhaps none more so that Twitter, which was host to the @bpglobalpr account, run by a comedian known only as Leroy Stick.

Stick used satirical humour to provide other tweeters with a platform from which to vent their anger at the situation. Whilst the company quickly set up an official account (@bp_america), they received only a fraction of the amount of followers gained by Stick and his fake account. Once YouTube got in on the action, with users posting a plethora of satirical videos on the site, it was game over for the company’s reputation.

Everyone’s favourite search engine, Google, have also faced the wrath of the wrath of ever-changing public opinion this week. First it was Google’s chief executive Eric E. Schmidt who faced the sort of privacy accusations that Facebook are far more used to dealing with. Speaking on US TV show, The Colbert Report, Schmidt was asked if Google was able to store information about its users, to which he jokingly replied “It’s true that we see your searches, but we forget them after a while”. Although a flippant joke, this quickly turned to negative press which could well be detrimental to Google itself. It could also affect those companies which have chosen to use the site to advertise their own business.

Google also ran into trouble this week regarding their Street View technology. Google’s ability to provide panoramic photographic images of roads up and down the country has proved particularly favourable with small businesses those looking to encourage interaction with those outside of the company, as it offers increased accessibility.

However, there are clearly those who do not welcome the idea. This was soon discovered by Google’s camera-cars as they took to the Channel Island of Guernsey with the intent to collect image data for the area, which is yet to be included in the Street View mapping. The cars were found with their tyres slashed and cables cut – not exactly a subtle indication of the hostility that some residents feel towards Google’s mapping plans.

Meanwhile, it seems that even those businesses who are not affected by the public’s fluctuating relationship with social media platforms might be suffering from technological mishaps this week. In France, thieves took advantage of the ‘pneumatic tube’ system used to transport money from supermarket checkouts in a way that is, supposedly, secure. By drilling a hole in the tube, they used a powerful vacuum cleaner to simply siphon the money out of the system…

The general popularity of various social media platforms means they are likely to remain an overwhelmingly popular and successful means for small businesses to connect with clients and customers. However, they often serve as an example of the volatile nature of public opinion, especially that which frequently accompanies the anonymity which they themselves provide – and this is certainly something which many businesses can learn from.

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