It’s toxic, but you’re stuck with it

By Mic Wright on August 14th, 2012

The moment your Chief Marketing Officer tells you that social media doesn’t matter or that your company is dumping its presence there, I’d advise you to fire them out of a special cannon you’ve had built for the occasion. Straight into a shark pit. Put the right clauses in their contract at the start and no court will convict you.

A growing burble from self-proclaimed business brains says that social media is a busted flush and that you needn’t worry about it. Well, yes, if you’re Macbeth in the castle saying: “Ah yeah, that forest is probably fine.” It’s perfectly possible for your company to quit social media, but social media will not quit you: your customers will still be there talking about you.

A study by Pearlfinders, the market research firm, used by the Telegraph as the hook for a recent piece on why companies are “right to turn away from social media“, claims that financial services companies cut their investment in social media at the end of 2011 – known in the trade as the “la la la, I can’t hear you” school of marketing.

Anthony Cooper, Pearlfinders’ managing director, told the paper: “As financial services brands embraced new methods for communicating with customers, they opened themselves up to criticism and negative sentiment. Banks, for instance, are becoming very wary of social channels and many are reconsidering whether they should invest in something that generates negative returns.”

The skewed logic at work here is baffling. It is not the social media efforts that are generating the negative sentiment but banks’ bad behaviour and years of poor service endured by customers. Finding that when your customers talk back they don’t have great things to say about you or your brand should not trigger a retreat into your well-appointed shell, but rather a reappraisal of your behaviour.

The genie is out of the bottle. It doesn’t like your conventional customer service channels, hates that you keep paying your executives massive bonuses and thinks that advert with the singing staff is more irritating that a line of itching powder huffed Keith Richards-style.

If Pearlfinders are right and negative tweets about the six major high street banks in the UK – Lloyds TSB, Barclays, RBS, HSBC, Co-Op and NatWest – were twice as common as positive ones, that’s a message to their management. (For the avoidance of doubt, the message is not: “bury your heads in the sand”.)

Certainly you can discount some of those tweets as the product of grinches, never happier than when moaning, or of the professional grievance mongers of the upper working and lower middle classes, but if your customers are consistently ganching about you, you’ve got a problem that cannot be solved by switching it off.

Of course, you can cut spending on social media marketing, opting instead to be purely reactive. But restricting your activity to firefighting means your presence on social networks will be the business equivalent of poor old Gill on The Simpsons, endlessly apologising for your screw ups.

Why would any smart company allow the most irritated and negative customers to tell its story on Twitter and Facebook? You should have your marketeer merit badges rescinded if you think it’s even remotely an option to just leave the room and let Twitter keep talking about you.

Get people on side, deal with problems effectively and you could turn the tide of that negative sentiment, closing down opportunities for the hordes of disruptive services that are on their way to eat you. Leave it to fester and your living conditions will end up so fetid that the Swamp Thing would balk at them.

These days, social media is just a cost of doing business. So strap on your HazMat suit and get back out there. Yes, it’s toxic, but you’re stuck with it.