Playing with fire

At the end of October 2011, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce called a surprise news conference, announcing his decision to shut the airline down, forcing restless unions into mediation with Fair Work Australia (FWA). Joyce’s action left tens of thousands of passengers stranded – some while in transit – and ignited a storm of outrage.

People took to Twitter to give voice to their own anger, sharing personal stories of flights canceled and connections missed and collectively pondering the future of Australia’s iconic flag carrier.

The whole storm blew over within a few days. Qantas employees went back to work, flights resumed, and Joyce eventually got an FWA-negotiated settlement with his unions. Life went on as before. No hurt feelings. Or so some thought.

A few weeks later, someone in Qantas marketing dreamed up a crazy, wild, innovative idea – why not invite people to share their own dreams of luxurious travel?  Qantas sent out a series of tweets:

“Ever wanted to experience Qantas First Class luxury? You could win a First Class gift pack feat. a luxury amenity kit and our famous QF PJs.

“To enter, tell us ‘What is your dream luxury in-flight experience?’ (Be creative!) Answer must include #QantasLuxury.”

Within a few minutes, a large number of people had responded. But not in the way Qantas’ marketing department had hoped. Quite the opposite. ABC journalist Mark Colvin, quite a prolific tweeter, answered the challenge:

“Getting from A to B without the plane being grounded or an engine catching fire. #qantasluxury,” he wrote.

Blogger Greg Jericho pointed back to Joyce’s unprecedented industrial action:
“#QantasLuxury – when the passengers arrive before the couriers delivering the lockout notices do.”

A few tweets soon became an avalanche. Everyone saw their friends contribute something interesting, or sad, or funny, and decided to add their own voice to the mix. It became a national festival, an ‘airing of the grievances against a corporation seen as greedy, unresponsive, and unfriendly.

The marketers tried to respond – using the hashtag #QantasWeHearYou – in an attempt to dim the fury, but it was too late. Drowned out by the overwhelming tide of bad feeling, Qantas simply reinforced the widely held image of an organization out of touch with Australian values. It was too soon after the bruising shutdown to play on people’s fantasies of air travel. Tempers needed to cool before tongues could speak civilly.

Qantas blithely threw lit matches around, never noticing they’d already poured petrol all over themselves. How could this happen? What kind of disconnect leads to this sort of public embarrassment? How could Qantas be so deaf?

There are none so deaf as those who will not listen. Qantas forgot (or perhaps never learned) the first law of social media: Say little, listen much. Marketers have always been tasked with talking, never with listening, and this may explain why the transition into social media, which favors listening, has been so rocky. Seeding the conversation with a hashtag, then waiting for praise to roll in, is not listening. It’s simply another way to be as deaf as a post.

The bigger the brand, the less it should talk, and the more it should listen. A brand speaks for itself, with broadcasters and publishers, and advertising firms carefully crafting what it will say to everyone, everywhere. The channels provided by any social medium (Facebook, Twitter, and everything else) cannot carry the force of the brand. Social media is personal, responsive, and modest, rewarding those who listen before they leap.

Every big business should have learned from Qantas’ mistakes. But the lesson fell on deaf ears. Back in January, fast-food giant McDonalds tweeted:

“Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day #McDStories.”

People leaped at the chance to tell other stories, ones that McDonald’s would rather not hear. Twitterer @xoKimberly_ summed it up:

“If you think you’re craving a Mcdonald’s, just check out the #McDStories campaign. Your cravings will be gone forever. #eww”

The largest food company in the world, turned into social media roadkill by a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium. Another tragedy, thoroughly preventable. Yet, if they learn to listen, big brands can make social media work.

Take Telstra, which now has a strong Twitter presence, dedicated to solving customer problems. Tweet @Telstra with a question, a problem, or an observation, and you’ll get a reply – at almost any hour of the day. The @Telstra Twitter account has become part tech support, part complaint desk, and a constant reminder that Telstra is listening to its customers’ needs.

Telstra never uses that Twitter account as a marketing channel. (It has other accounts for that, which you can follow if you’re interested.) That account has one purpose: listening to customers. Every Australian business needs that listening connection to its customers, married to the kind of focus and wisdom that prevents that channel from being confused with brand message and marketing. It’s not easy, but it’s always easier to prevent a fire than to put one out.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML, co-author of The Next Billion Seconds, and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy. He was formerly one of the judges on ABC’s The New Inventors.

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