11 Jun 2009

Prepare For Fail Whale, Not Epic Win

It's been a day full of news about Twitter. Okay, EVERY day recently has as well, but today's been more relevant than usual.

Three things popped up today that caught our eye - first, that Pepsi Raw are claiming to be the first to put a Twitter address directly on their product to invite feedback. Alongside that, there's a report out from Datamonitor, which threatens extinction for brands without a social networking presence, as well as putting up examples of the right way to do it. And finally, there's Trent Reznor - driving force behind industrial-goth-metallers Nine Inch Nails and hitherto a serious afficionado of Web 2.0 who waded hip-deep into communicating directly with his fans - who's decided to dump the whole shebang and put the shutters back up.

Trent Reznor's retreat from Web 2.0 is the thing that stands out here. Reznor, after all, is a man completely in control of his own brand, using the options available to him online to reshape his relationship between his work and his fans, bypassing traditional structures (record labels, PRs, media) and interacting directly, giving significantly higher visibility into his personal life along the way. He's released music, announced tours, and interacted with fans on the extremely busy nin.com, through Twitter and all the other myriad pathways of communication now available, and done it on his own terms. He's got over 600,000 followers on Twitter, a decent number in anyone's books, but has now he's decided to chuck it all in, because he's decided that he's had enough of the lunatic fringe causing problems. In his own words, 'Idiots rule', and he wants no more part of it.

Reznor's approach has been exemplary by any standard, exactly how any brand should operate in a social space, and that - in his own opinion - it has been an ultimately unsuccessful experiment is significant. Since these tools are still so sparkly and new, there is almost no knowledge base of what happens when it goes wrong, with most brands still in early phases of use - just starting up, learning the effects or plunging in blindly and getting their fingers badly burned.

Which leads us to the Datamonitor report. As they say themselves, "when done properly, social network-based customer service interactions drive increased intimacy between company and customer". That's exactly what Reznor created, with the new-found intimacy getting him so miffed that he ended up giving his own fans advice on how better to kill themselves. Datamonitor assumes that greater intimacy with consumers is desirable, and that if 'done right', then consumers will be politely appreciative of your efforts and spend all their cash with you as a reward. The reality of course is that consumers are still people, and are just as capable of being as capricious, rude, spiteful, illogical, contrary and downright unpleasant as anyone else, and any advice on how to 'do the social stuff right' is based on limited experience.

Is the challenge then to plan for failure, not success? The opportunities presented to companies so far mainly revolve around the benefits of interaction, and how it will lead to all manner of marvellous successes. In turn, operationally, companies are geared to responding with greater levels of product, informative responses to polite enquiries and ultimately increased sales - rarely does there seem to be any plan in place for what happens when the audience turns nasty.

Extreme care needs to be taken in this volatile space (although Datamonitor's claim that non-participation could lead to obsolecence is, at best, spurious) but as always, it should start with solid insight into the audience you are trying to talk with. Not in the basic sense, of which channels they are most likely to use and so on, but in terms of how they're likely to react to being sold to in a space that consumers cosider 'theirs'.

Pepsi Raw's experiment therefore will be interesting to watch. The ability to talk with an audience directly is clearly a good idea - however, the audience that most uses and talks through these channels is also the one most likely to flame you, just for kicks, and for no other reason that you're there, waving a flag that says "here is my digital backside - please kick it".