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Organizations: prepare for online firestorms in 2012

A few weeks ago I predicted that 2012 would be the year of the “Twitter Big Stick” in Kenya: a time when both politicians and large organizations feel the force of feedback from social media.

I pointed out that the reason for this is that the little people – customers, users, voters – now have networked little devices in their pockets. Most of these mobile gadgets have cameras attached, and are connected to global social media platforms. A single tweet complaining about your organization can therefore reach tens of thousands of people in just hours, if not minutes.

Don’t believe me on this one, Kenyan CEOs? Well, it’s already happening.

In recent months, many corporations have had to undertake humiliating U-turns after new proposals caused social media explosions. Take Netflix in the US. This very successful company suddenly announced plans to split up its businesses and charge more for each service. The resulting Twitter uproar amongst its user base was deafening, with thousands threatening immediate cancellations. Guess what? The company reversed course, but the damage was done.

Bank of America announced a new $5 monthly debit card charge – but changed its mind fast once a social-media storm focused its attention. Gap was forced to recall a new logo – after seeing all the derision it excited. Verizon’s ill-thought-out $2 online-payments charge didn’t even make it past 24 hours. And HP announced plans to ditch its personal-computer business – but found surprisingly high levels of support for its PCs on social media, and decided to keep the division going (after dumping its CEO instead).

Are these all foreign examples, not applicable here, I hear you saying? Well, Kenya Power faced widespread derision from its customer base online when it launched a new brand – minus any appreciable improvement in customer service and supply reliability. Local ISPs who use blatantly misleading marketing in launching new offerings are feeling the heat every day.

A localized dispute between business directory Mocality and Google here in Kenya last week took just hours to spread around “Twitterville” and elsewhere, and was all over leading global online news media the same day, forcing Google to issue a quick apology and the promise of a thorough investigation.

So don’t doubt it: the Twitter Big Stick is swinging. If your organization routinely frustrates its customers, makes them swelter in queues, mis-sells its products, or allows its staff to engage in anti-social practices – await the online caning. Which will be very, very bad for your reputation and your business.

What this heralds is a startling sea-change in the relationship between organizations and their customers. The little Davids are able to connect virtually in a way they never could physically, and teach many a Goliath a stinging lesson.

Is this always a good thing? No, because abuse is possible and in some cases consumers should not have so much say in company decisions. However, in an environment where customer abuse is rampant and bad service the norm, the social-media firestorms will mostly do a great deal of good. Businesses will be forced to remember why they exist in the first place – to deliver unique value to customers.

Good organizations should prepare themselves now. Take a fresh look at what causes anger and frustration in your customer base, and act on it before you spark any uproar to avoid severe reputational damage. Be more honest and open in your dealings with customers in this new, more transparent world. Embrace feedback, no matter how robust, and use it to become better and stronger. Think hard about your own social-media presence and strategy.

The good organizations who care about their reputations will be the first to use this development positively. For the rest, only prolonged online caning will discipline them. It should be a fascinating year.

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