The court of public opinion in many ways is realized through the social web. —Cory Edwards
Heather Armstrong had not planned to have a fight with an appliance company. But her brand-new, not inexpensive Maytag washing machine had broken down, and the timing could not have been worse.
With a newborn baby in the house, Salt Lake-based blogger Armstrong needed to be doing laundry often. Constantly.
Maytag's response was beyond unsatisfactory.
"I had basically exhausted every single avenue for customer service available," Armstrong said. She had made the calls, been polite, waited patiently for the repairs that never came.
It was time for the last resort. Armstrong took to her Twitter account. She calmed herself in advance — "I purposefully took a walk around the block before I sat down to write anything. I was careful not to use any expletives," she said — but when it came time to tweet, she was forceful.
"So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE."
Armstrong, one of the most-read bloggers in America, followed this up with four other tweets warning her 1.5 million followers — in no uncertain terms — about her washing machine nightmare.
After "about 8 or 9 hours," Armstrong said, she was contacted via Twitter by Maytag's owner, the Whirlpool Corporation. The following day she got a call, a repairman and a fixed machine. Not only that, she was also promptly offered a free machine courtesy of Bosch, also a home appliance company. Armstrong donated it to a local women's shelter.
"I still have (the washing machine)," Armstrong said. "They fixed it, and it's working … I think they're happy that I went away."
Heather Armstrong's swift reversal in the world of customer service was due in large part to her own power: with a million followers on Twitter and Dooce, her famous blog, anything she said could — and did — reverberate in the virtual world.
But her experience speaks to a larger truth about social media and the free market. The Maytag story, she said, is now being used in textbooks to illustrate the critical importance of managing the online image of businesses.
Social media is changing the game for consumers. The dance between company and customer could change with a click. And with that click, the frustration of one unsatisfied patron could change an organization's reputation for many, many others. More than ever, businesses have reason to be wary of how they treat their customers.
"It's a public way to keep brands honest," Cory Edwards said. "The court of public opinion in many ways is realized through the social web."
Edwards teaches at Brigham Young University as an adjunct professor in the College of Fine Arts and Communications. He is also the director of social media and corporate reputation for Dell computers. He said Dell has been heavily involved with monitoring and responding to online conversations about its brand since 2006.
But the reality is, the world of social media is a new one for many companies. Harvard Business Review Analytic Services conducted a survey of 2,100 companies in late 2010. Only 12 percent of them felt they were using social media effectively.
Using social media effectively is, however, second nature to most of the people companies hope to attract. "It's become integrated into the daily life of almost everyone," Edwards said.
"If people aren't getting the response they want," said Dave Folkens, a public relations consultant in Minneapolis, Minn., "we're a lot quicker to go and share that with our friends and networks now."
That willingness to share has unleashed a startling power in "the court of public opinion," as Edwards called it. Issues on the national stage have seen whiplash reversals after social media users had their say: The anti-piracy legislation SOPA was shelved by Congress after the virtual world made its displeasure felt. The Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to stop providing funding to Planned Parenthood was quickly reversed after a similar social media barrage.
Companies are starting to take the hint. Tweets, succinct though they may be, can be heard around the world. To 'like' something on Facebook takes one click, but it can speak volumes. And typing out displeasure with a product or service has never been more vocal, or more public.
"I think that there's a recognition that … social media is not going to just go away," Edwards said. "Early on, there were a lot of people that scoffed at the idea of a blog … then Facebook came around, and now your grandmother's on it along with everyone else. Companies should ignore (social networks) at their peril."
It's a lesson Dell, like Maytag, learned the hard way about seven years ago. In 2005, Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and blogger for the Guardian (a large newspaper in the United Kingdom), chronicled his experience with the customer support arm of the company. He called it "Dell Hell."
Jarvis, like Armstrong, had enough of a following that his complaints did not go unnoticed. He was eventually offered a brand new device, and instead asked for a full refund (which he got).
In an entirely different part of the world — at a conference in Osaka, Japan — Dell was in for another PR disaster: one of their laptops spontaneously combusted. Computers on fire! The incident mushroomed in the media, and reports of similar events began to crop up everywhere. Exploding laptops and angry blogging customers made for an unhappy combination.
"It was a scary time for the company," Edwards said. "That forced us to do what we're doing."
The power of online reputation
What they're doing translates to putting social media at the center of their business strategy. "(Dell) is an incredible example of really utilizing social media to its best advantage," said John Thuet, one of Edwards' BYU students who is studying communications and public relations.
The company now has a "command center" admired and replicated by businesses the world over. The center, which emerged about the same time Harvard's study did, is solely in place to monitor daily virtual conversations about Dell. According to Edwards, there are 25,000 mentions of the company every day. The sheer volume of data requires a sophisticated model to process it, group it into trends and understand the daily fluctuations of the company's online reputation.
Edwards called it an "early warning system" to try and avoid any more "Dell Hell" fiascos. "At any point, something viral could happen that could affect us negatively," he said.
The viral aspect of social media — the fact that something said by even the most anonymous of users could catch on and spread like wildfire — is giving consumers a louder kind of power.
"Now consumers don't just consume," Jarvis wrote after chronicling Dell Hell. "We spit back."
Armstrong mentioned that while the magnitude of her own experience surprised her, her friends with far less prominent online presences — say, 50 followers to her 1.5 million — are now getting attention from companies when they need it.
Folkens is careful to point out that to "quickly go online and post a rant," or some similar "kneejerk reaction" is not necessarily the best way to attract a business. "If you go out and flame a company without cause," he said, "obviously companies don't want to deal with that either."
But "I think companies will be a little bit more accountable," he said, "because of the public nature of it — because again, you don't want misperceptions or single bad experiences casting such a shadow of doubt, because if they get some traction online they could be overblown. (Organizations) are probably more sensitive now to the customer-service impact than they were three to five years ago, because of social media."
Satisfying the tweeting customer
Increased sensitivity to customer service, from the customer's perspective, is not a bad development. "I personally think it's a really effective way for consumers to give their opinions to the company," Thuet said. "That's important to me."
Armstrong agreed. "I think (social media) is a great equalizer. Our network of friends is so much bigger than just the people in our living room … the people we complain to now, they have voices that can be heard as well."
The ripple effect of Twitter and the like is important enough to be getting increased attention from businesses. Dell, among others — Armstrong mentioned Comcast as a good example — is looking to not just monitor online conversations, but be involved in them.
"Listening is only as good as your ability to respond," Edwards said. To that end, Dell has a team in place to do just that. "(Dell has) 84 people now, who on a full-time basis are sifting through the vast amount of data that's being put out by our command center … this group of 84 people then reach out through those channels to folks who are having an issue."
The strategy is helping to change the company's online reputation, Edwards said. "Currently 34 percent of (social media users) who go on a tirade (about Dell) … they end up becoming ravers, happy to the point of publicly expressing their thanks. We're thrilled about it."
A new frontier
The elaborate game of "Marco Polo" customers are playing with companies is spilling into other aspects of public life. Social media is not just boosting customer services. Today it can give voice to those in need of more than a new Maytag.
This month, the American Red Cross announced its commitment to using social media for humanitarian relief.
"Our goal at the Red Cross is to be the social liaison — for people, for families, for communities — to support one another," Gail McGovern said. As CEO and president of the American Red Cross, McGovern was presiding over an event announcing the launch of the organization's first Digital Operations Center. The Center is modeled on and guided by Dell's own command center, allowing the Red Cross to monitor and aggregate social media conversations during disasters. The two organizations have a longstanding relationship.
McGovern emphasized that this innovation — which features sleek monitors mounted on walls on which maps of social media 'mentions' are displayed — "is going to give us a better idea of what's going on the ground (during a disaster)." In times of crisis, she said, people are increasingly taking to social media to ask for help or give and seek information.
In those situations, "Information is like gold," McGovern said. The Center has already weathered its first storm, aggregating information during last week's devastated spate of tornadoes in the American Midwest and South.
Michael Dell, CEO and chairman of the board of his namesake company, also spoke at the event, along with Macon Phillips, director of new media at the White House.
"The importance of this center … cannot be overstated," Phillips said.
In keeping with their social media emphasis, the organizations jointly hosted a livestream of the event online, complete with a space for viewers to discuss.
Sure enough, social media users had things to say. "MelyMello" wrote, "this is a HUGE step for the Red Cross! Very excited by the possibilities here!"
Naturally, she tweeted about the event. She has 1,703 followers.