Why the Crowd Is Not Always So Wise

In mid-May, when Twitter decided to get rid of a feature from its service, it became the latest brand to discover what it’s like to be in the eye of a social media firestorm.

The change to “Replies” on Twitter — in which users reply, mostly in messages all of their followers can see, to one another — involved no longer showing users “Replies” between one person they were following, and one person they weren’t. If it sounds esoteric, it is. But that didn’t stop tens of thousands of Twitter users from complaining.

To those who have been following — no pun intended — the rise of social media as a suggestion box, it was only the most recent example of a tech brand getting caught in the crossfire of consumer complaint. In February, Facebook had to face its own music when it changed its terms of service without telling users first. When the new terms were revealed by the blog Consumerist, an outcry followed, since the language stated that Facebook owned users’ content in perpetuity. As a result of the controversy, Facebook decided to do an about-face, returning to its old terms of service, while deciding that users would vote on such important changes.

And being caught in the online crossfire isn’t limited to tech brands used by consumers who are adept at exploiting viral channels. In November, Motrin pulled an online ad that some mothers thought made fun of the practice of “baby-wearing” (i.e., carrying a baby around all day in a carrier), and in February, Tropicana pulled new packaging when consumers complained.

Those examples might lead marketing strategists to believe that the best policy when faced with volumes of digitally-driven consumer outcry is not only to apologize, but to back down. However, there’s evidence to suggest that just as consumers are increasingly filtering who they want to hear from in the social media sphere, companies need to decide whose complaints to listen to and react upon, and whose not to.

Consumers have always complained, but now their voices are louder. “It’s just that marketing has never been a contact sport,” explains Chris Marriott, vice president and global managing director of interactive agency Acxiom Digital, of the way the landscape has changed.
There are several reasons companies might want to think twice before reacting. One is that consumers don’t like change. “People are not always the best gauge of what’s good for a company,” explains social media consultant Alan Wolk. “They don’t like change. They don’t like new things initially.”

Thus, corporations sometimes have to decide to stay the course. Facebook said as much in a statement to Media, based on a reporter’s query about why the service backed down in the face of the terms-of-service controversy, but not when it came to its even more recent redesign (which at one point 94 percent of consumers didn’t like, according to a poll conducted via Facebook app). “While we understand and value the importance of listening to and incorporating user feedback, we need to continue to make independent decisions about products in order to push technology forward,” says Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin. “We take a measured approach in rolling out products we believe in and then iterate according to user feedback and behavior.”

The Sci Fi Channel is another brand that has recently plowed forward with a major change, even as viewers cried foul. Of course, as a brand with a fan base (as opposed to a user base), Sci Fi has experience with complaints. Sci Fi exec Craig Engler says viewers were apoplectic when the Channel’s remake of Battlestar Galactica turned the character of Starbuck into a woman. “As many people complained about it as complained about the name change,” he recalls. When the series finally concluded earlier this year, the female Starbuck had become viewers’ favorite character. So much for the wisdom of the crowd.

Another reason not to give in to consumer complaint is that the noise level of online complaint can be deceiving, especially when compared to older forms of customer feedback that weren’t so public. Despite all of the hand-wringing over the change to Twitter’s “Replies” feature, only 3 percent of members actually used it. In the case of Facebook, despite reams of comment on the service and elsewhere about the terms of service, only 600,000 out of 200 million users bothered to vote on the new terms.

As David Armano, senior partner at social media consultancy Dachis Corp., puts it, “You have to be able to filter out the signal from the noise.”
Next story loading loading..