Customers aren’t in control.

At least not in the way that the social media cliche would have you believe.

View full size on FlickrI was on an Alaska Airlines flight last week from Austin to San Jose. This route is nicknamed "the nerd bird." However, Alaska announced that it would be canceling the route in May. While we were boarding, a passenger was lamenting its demise to a flight attendant. She told him that another frequent flyer had been on a mission collecting comment cards from the in-flight magazine to stage a write-in campaign to save the route.

Which reminds me of another write-in campaign that was once touted a feel-good best practice example of the POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA. As background, I disclose that I'm no stranger to being on the business end of multiple write-in campaigns. I've heard an earful about chimpanzee exploitation, racist reggae artists, and sexually suggestive advertising. But that was before social media – faxes, phone calls, and email are all one-to-one communication. Today, detractors can voice their displeasure publicly and incite others more quickly to their cause; examples like Comcast Must Die abound. The apparent takeaway for brands: customers are in control whether you like it or not.

 In 2006, US television network CBS piloted a new show called "Jericho." It was a tale about a small town in middle America and nuclear holocaust, with plot driven by the protagonists having a lack of information. CBS programming executives had all the information they needed, watching show ratings drop like a bomb. The show was cancelled. That was when social media swung into action.

CBS is nutsJericho fanatics started a write-in campaign to save their show. But they took it a step further. In the show's final episode, a protagonist utters the rallying cry "nuts!" before heading into battle. Jericho enthusiasts embraced the idea and decided to send nuts to CBS President Nina Tassler. 40 tons of nuts. Finally, the network makes the decision to bring Jericho back for another season and tells fans, "P.S. Please stop sending us nuts."

The story is described as a victory of social media. Power to the people! Consumers are in control!

 But that's not where the story ends. Jericho came back to TV – but no one was watching. Ratings were worse than when the show went off the air. Without ratings, a network can't drive advertising revenue – and fans aren't enough to offset a lack of corporate sponsorship. Jericho was cancelled again and finally put to rest. People rarely tell the part of the story where social media is proven wrong and that's important to understand.

It's true that consumers vote with their dollars. Social media can also generate business results when used properly. Plenty of opportunities exist for applying new thinking to content, operations, viewer engagement, commercial support, cross-platform integration, and elsewhere. It's dangerous to rely on blanket statements from the early days of social media to today's social business operating environment.

Pete Blackshaw of Nestle offers great advice regarding customers in control:

The overheated rhetoric acts as a deceptive rationalization. We marketers have far more control than we let on. We buy the media, make the product, write the message, pick the messaging platform, select the suppliers, and hire the employees who ultimately do all the above.

I'm not sure what's going to happen to the Alaska Airlines route, but it'll most likely go away as scheduled. I doubt loyalists think strategically about the decision – passenger loads, fuel costs, competition from Southwest, better yield on Hawaii flights – before beating their social and traditional media drums in complaint.

Organizations must have process and policy in place to deal with detractors (individuals and groups) rather than using a blanket approach based on the wisdom of the crowd – or lack thereof. And confidence that control is best shared in carefully measured cases.

5 Replies to “Customers aren’t in control.”

  1. Great perspective on the reality of marketing and the influence social media can have. Plenty of ways social media can accelerate/enhance customer points of view, but they need a healthy dose of context.

  2. Sorry to bring up the Henry Ford cliche, but “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

    The optimal path comes in strong managers overseeing social media decisions, who seek to omit short-term biases and knee-jerk reactions. Vulnerability comes with weak, thin-skinned managers who freak, panic and bow down too quickly.

    Flags of social media sentiment flap from one direction to the other as the wind changes, but sound, long-term decision-making should not.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, too. If consumers were really in control, why does customer service in the airlines industry still suck? Have we seen any real improvement in the way United Airlines services its customers in light of the much celebrated “United Breaks Guitars” consumer-generated video? To cite an example from another industry: does anyone seriously think BP cared about anyone’s anti-BP Facebook page after the April 2010 oil spill? On a more positive note, I believe that although consumers like empowerment, we do not want the responsibility of being in control. We want a relationship with brands, which means we accept the fact that both the brand and consumer exert influence. We want companies to delight us with new products and services, and we will gladly pay them to do that. We want to watch new ads on the Super Bowl. We want to have fun with in-store and digital experiences. Does any consumer really want to be calling the shots for Apple and Disney, or do we not want those two great brands to delight and surprise us by creating cool products and services we did not anticipate on our own? I discuss this topic as well here: http://superhypeblog.com/?p=1882 and here: http://superhypeblog.com/?p=3131

  4. Customers have more of a voice today through their use of social media. That voice should not be misconstrued as the voice of the brand, which is still controlled by marketers.

    @clweinfeld

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