What Marketers Can Learn From Twitter's Stumbles

The Service Is a Victim of Its Popularity -- and Its Lack of Responsiveness Is Costing It Fans

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
What are the limits of consumer loyalty when a particular product or service consistently stumbles, or just doesn't work? What if those stumbles are actually due to the immense popularity of the product?

Any fast-growing brand that has seen its infrastructure quiver under the weight of widespread customer demand should look for a lesson on how not to do things in Web 2.0 darling Twitter. The fast-growing message platform allows users to tell a self-selected group what he or she is doing at any time of the day, using either a PC or mobile device to transmit short, 140-character-or-less messages.

A growing percentage of users have publicly sounded the alarm that the service is broken with annoying frequency. And that alarm has gone viral, partly thanks to Twitter's largely nonresponsive attitude to its downtime problems. A nonfunctional Twitter essentially sandbags impulse -- and who wants a roadblock when they are fixin' to release, share, vent or pontificate?

Equally vexing, the direct feedback outlets consumers use when brands have problems -- direct e-mail, instant chat or even a good old-fashioned 800-number -- are nowhere to be found on the Twitter platform. Instead, Twitter uses a website called GetSatisfaction.com to collect customer conversation about the service. It's innovative, but not exactly high-touch.

There's off-equity irony here in this lack of accessibility. First of all, a service wedded to igniting millions of real-time conversations is struggling to manage the conversation coming back at it. That's an important thing to watch as big companies wade into the brave new world of social media. After all, Twitter has become the training ground of choice for new forms of intimate, real-time "customer service" experimentation by the likes of Zappos, Delta, JetBlue, Comcast, Southwest, Virgin, Whole Foods and many others. These are all brands lining up to touch, feel, sense and respond to Twitter users.

Twitter's defense? The service "took off too quickly," notes founder Biz Stone. To address the issues, Twitter is reportedly infusing itself with another $15 million in capital from the likes of Spark Capital and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with immediate attention on the network issues.

But that news hasn't done much to soothe many annoyed Twitterers out there. "Twitter's founders' action has been deplorable. It's Second Life all over again," stammers marketing expert and "Join the Conversation" author Joe Jaffe. "The lack of communication has been inexcusable. I only hope it isn't any arrogance on their part, based on the deluded belief that people won't defect because of the high barriers to exit." Jaffe, incidentally, with nearly 3,000 Twitter followers, is hardly a "casual" user.

Now, with attractive substitutes on deck -- from FriendFeed to Facebook's Twitter-like status bar -- it's worth asking whether Twitter faces a genuine threat. Not likely in the short term, most observers seem to agree, but no one should underestimate the potential downside of Twitter not being more responsive (even available) to the aggrieved. When in crisis, you need to listen.

In the meantime, loyalty to Twitter hangs in the precarious balance of three key factors. And each has a short shelf life.

WOW-Induced Forgiveness Insurance
Many argue that the overall experience is so positively overwhelming -- even addictive -- that it exceeds any short-term pain or disruption. "For me, I'm going to stick it out with a brand when it's having issues as long as the utility is greater than the pain points. With Twitter, the utility I get (both personally and professionally) goes well beyond the pain of its stability issues," said active social networker Zena Weist.
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the forthcoming book "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (Doubleday). He's a former co-leader of P&G interactive marketing, the founder of PlanetFeedback.com and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). This bi-weekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control. Pete's blogs include ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com and Tell3000.com.

'So Bad It's Good' Defense
Then there are those who see marketing value in bad news. If the system is taxed and stressed, it must be insanely popular. Bad news is good news. A broken machine is an active machine. A scratched record is one we keep playing over and over again. Remember AOL's marketing and positive word-of-mouth dividend after Steve Case apologized for its first major service outage back in the mid-1990s?

"Short term, it adds to the cachet," explains Jonathan Yarmis. "When people talk about the pain of a platform's instability, those not on the platform wonder 'what's so amazing about that platform that people are distraught when it's not available? I have to go look at that.'"

'Too Invested to Retreat' Defense
For many, the high cost of switching is the most compelling reason to stick it out. Who wants to rewind and start again? Angry Joe Jaffe may huff and puff, but at the end of the day, he's hostage to his 3,000 followers, right? I dare him to quit!

Here's a five-step program for how Twitter -- or any brand wrestling with growth so fast it's outstripped its infrastructure -- can get its act together.

  1. Communicate the commitment. If in fact there is a real investment forthcoming, get the word out -- through every means possible. Don't leave it to blogs to leak the news.
  2. Communicate and visualize empathy and concern. Put a video link on the Home Page and an embedded video on the "Help" page apologizing for all the tech glitches. The loyalists need to know the brand really cares. I'd even consider putting it on YouTube -- not unlike Jet Blue!
  3. Staff up on response resources, even interns if necessary. Whether through the support supplier, GetSatisfaction, or even interns to respond to queries, show more signs of life on the responsiveness front. These are the things that really help.
  4. Steal a page from Zappos.com. Zappos.com uses customer service as a strategic weapon, and engaging with Twitter users requires someone who specializes. Twitter should have that type of presence, especially in this time of stress and crisis.
  5. If you're in the business of creating and monetizing conversations, take precautions to ensure you are not unduly exposed or compromised by the conversation. We all need to set a high bar for managing conversations.
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