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International Business: Angry Twitter mobs wield 'twitchforks' in worldwide attacks

Published: Friday, May 6 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

What does a company do if unhappy customers start to reach for their "twitchforks" (twitter + pitchforks) worldwide? In social media, wise companies will follow some of the same best practices used in person.

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Shortly after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Microsoft tweeted the following message from its Bing Twitter account: “How you can #SupportJapan? For every retweet, @Bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.”

The response from the Twitter public was not at all what Microsoft intended. An angry mob pounced and accused the software giant of attempting to profit from a tragedy. Microsoft mitigated damages the same day with an apology tweet, “We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived. Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan. We have donated $100K.”

Since that episode, Microsoft has committed $2 million to relief efforts in Japan.

In days gone by, a happy customer might tell only a few people about a good experience, while an unhappy customer might tell 10 people or more. Social media amplifies customer voices to the point where one or two unhappy people can quickly erupt into an angry, global, Twitter-raging mob of hundreds or thousands.

Twitter mobs have formed to protect causes like the Japan relief effort mentioned above, the Egyptian revolution and efforts to save the whales. Other virtual mobs have risen up to indignantly protect individuals like actor Stephen Fry or rapper 50 Cent.

For-profit businesses have also benefited from the rage that follows the perceived injustice of intellectual property infringement. In one case, the virtual mob came to the defense of an author whose work had been blatantly plagiarized by a small online magazine. The response was so strong that the magazine website soon shut down.

In the case of the online bank SmartyPig.com, the company’s logo and website were blatantly copied by a Romanian company called TrustyPig. With little ability to take legal action against a company in Romania, SmartyPig’s only hope was an angry Twitter mob. In this case, the mob not only tweeted, but also organized to hijack TrustyPig’s brand and thus flaunt the company’s misdeeds. Within two days of the mob’s brand hijack, unflattering headlines like “TrustyPig steals web design from SmartyPig” were showing up near the top of Google search results, TrustyPig changed its Web design and the Twitter mob declared victory.

The fast, free flow of electronic information accelerates the spread of both mistakes and corrections. When this rapid information flow is combined with total or relative anonymity and lack of apparent consequences for attackers, businesses and people are ruthlessly attacked online with or without good reason.

So what does a company do if it suddenly finds that unhappy customers start to reach for their “twitchforks?" Do not ignore it. Businesses can learn four lessons from the classic literary work "To Kill a Mockingbird:" be vigilant, act fast, make it personal and be creative.

In a scene where a real, live lynch mob attempted to apprehend a wrongfully accused man, small-town attorney Atticus Finch vigilantly anticipated the group at the door, acted immediately to try to diffuse the mob’s anger and addressed individuals in the mob personally to remove the mob’s perceived cloak of group anonymity. The creativity came when Finch’s children got involved to further diffuse the situation.

Lyra McKee of RepKnight, a UK-based company that develops a tool for managing and monitoring reputations in social media, suggests companies act quickly to make one-on-one conversations. She gives the following example Twitter exchange:

“@Customer: So angry about #OrganizationB’s service, absolutely disgraceful v(very) -- bad experience with them this week."

“@OrganizationB: So sorry to hear that! Can you follow me so I can DM (direct message) you please?”

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