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