{sxsw sessions} On Online Communities

by Rachel on March 19, 2012

Since moving into the role of community manager at my job last year, I’ve been acting as an advocate for our users and a representative of the brand and serving as the first point of contact when it comes to customer service and support. Though I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing, I feel like I have a lot to learn; I was really eager to meet other community managers at SXSW and get tips on the best ways to handle all the tough situations that can arise when it comes to online communities.

Several sessions and one meetup helped with this: How Brands Build Advocates by Anticipating Needs, I May “Like” You, but I’m Not in Like with YouCommunity & Influence: How Not to Piss People OffCommunity Manager Meetup, Pinterest Explained: Q&A with Co-Founder Ben SilbermannHow Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age, and Psychology of Narcissism and How It Affects Brands.

So…nearly all of my sessions! Here are some of the key things that were discussed.

The Role of Employees

In How Brands Build Advocates by Anticipating Needs (which was a “core conversation,” meaning the audience was sharing their thoughts just as much as the speakers were) the speakers talked about how brands no longer control the message of the brand. Leigh George (pictured at left) said marketing is less about selling and more about creating value and a great customer experience; when you do this, your customers will become your advocates and really help you sell your product. (And they’ll do a better job of it than you will; according to a great book I read recently, Brandwashed, people always value their friends’ recommendations over marketing and advertising, no matter how good it is.) In the I’m Not in Like with You session, the speaker, Chloe Gottleib, talked about how brands have to do more than just be present on social media. Social media marketing is not about selling; it’s about having conversations, engaging your users, and offering them something of value. It’s about building relationships.

In the Psychology of Narcissism session, the panelists talked about how angry customers — especially narcissists — often take to social media to bitch about their experience with a particular brand. However, panelist Duke Chung of Parature (a help desk software) said their research shows that customers want to say nice things about your brand. Customers are five times more likely to say good things about a company on social media. Their research also showed that by the time a customer has posted an angry rant about you on Twitter, they’ve tried — and failed — ten times to get help in some other way.

In the past few years, the role of the community manager has emerged to bridge the gap between marketing and customer service. Our job is to know how to write for social media but to be able to handle customer service issues as well. The sessions that were about customer service were all about filling this role. We repeatedly see instances when brands aren’t on Twitter, but their customers are. If a brand isn’t monitoring these channels, they won’t see what is being said about then and have no way of diffusing the situation.

First and foremost, the employee who is trying to diffuse the situation just needs to respond. I heard this again and again: in so many instances, the customer just wants to be heard. They want to feel like a real person is on the other end, and if they are bitching on Facebook, it’s likely because they couldn’t get anyone on the phone when they called the 1-800 number. Even if the employee can’t solve the problem herself, she can say, “I’m so sorry. I’m talking to our [tech support, legal, shipping] department and someone will contact you very soon.” And then she can actually talk to that department and make sure that the department takes action. Jacob Small, the clinical psychologist at the Psychology of Narcissism panel, said “Don’t argue the facts; it’s about the emotional experience. Instead simply identify and validate the rupture. Let the person know they are being heard.”

And it goes deeper than just having a person there monitoring. Frank Eliason, a panelist in the How Not to Piss People Off session, spoke to this point repeatedly. Frank was the original @ComcastCares guy and is passionate about customer service. (He was one of my favorite speakers at SXSW and I’m eager to read his book At Your Service: How to Attract New Customers, Increase Sales, and Grow Your Business Using Simple Customer Service Techniques.) He talked about how, more than anything, the employees interacting with their customers need autonomy. They need to be able to take immediate action without having to get approval from three higher-ups. He said it can be small, like giving each employee a stack of blank cards that they can send out whenever they feel that a customer needs a handwritten note. Rather than worrying about what they’ll write in the note, you just have to trust them enough to say the right thing. He gave an example of how, when he worked for a company that did this, an employee sent out a note that was written somewhat poorly — bad grammar or something — and the recipient, who happened to be a local newspaper reporter, was so touched by the handwritten note that he totally overlooked the grammar and wrote an article in the paper about the brand’s great customer service.

Ben Silbermann, of Pinterest, spoke to this point as well. Ben was the most softspoken, humble, and genuine guy I saw speak during SXSW (his shock and awe that he was even there was just so incredibly endearing), and it doesn’t surprise me that he built such a passionate community on Pinterest. “What makes Pinterest special is all the people,” he said. “We try to treat the people who use the service really well.” When asked how he does that, he said, “I personally wrote to the first 5,000. I still write to them. I gave them my cell phone number and we’d talk about it.” Another option is to give employees a budget (say, $25 for ten different customers each month) that can be used to take action when necessary. Whether the employee uses it to send an unhappy customer a gift card or to send them flowers because they mentioned a loved one died (which Zappos does), it’s up to them. But there doesn’t need to be protocol for how it’s used; in our fast-moving world, the employee just needs to be able to make the call and take action. “We don’t empower our service centers to do anything,” Frank said. And that needs to change.

How to Handle Influencers

It can be tempting for customers to respond to certain people first — those with more money, Twitter followers, or “influence.” But doing that can make your brand look selective and can piss off other community members. It can also bite you in the ass if you ignore customers you don’t perceive as a threat. Good content is powerful, and when a customer has a video of, say, a Comcast worker sleeping on the job, it’s going to spread like wildfire, even if the person who shot the video is a “nobody.”

While the panelists at the How Not to Piss People Off session debated this point quite a bit, they did agree that all customers have to receive a base level of customer service. Influencers — or the users who pay for your product in a freemium model — might get a faster response, but all customers need to be responded to in a reasonable amount of time and treated equally.

Personally, I think treating influencers differently (i.e. better) is a really dangerous plan. As a non-influencer in many communities, I get very resentful if I see that sort of thing happening. I also think it makes it look like the brand can be bullied by people who have a large number of followers. An influencer doesn’t need to be catered to when he or she is being ridiculous. A great recent example of this was Alec Baldwin’s incident with Southwest; they actually kicked him off the plane for not following the federal regulations. And sure he was pissed, but his behavior was unacceptable and they were totally right to kick him off the flight. And I think a lot of people cheered when they saw that a celebrity wasn’t getting special treatment; I know I did.

I also heard repeatedly that you have to let your community handle each other. Not only does it help you manage the workload as your community grows, but, like I said earlier, the community is ultimately going to determine your brand’s message no matter what you say.

Anonymity Changes Everything

How customers and communities behave online is, without question, affected by the fact that people can be anonymous. When the social web first started to take off, people assumed that being anonymous would encourage people to be dishonest. Why be yourself when you can be anyone? But what we’ve seen is that people are actually more honest online.

In How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age, Lisa Ling talked about the site she started, Secret Society of Women, which she started after having a miscarriage and needing to talk to someone about it. She felt like women hold a lot of things inside and wanted to give them a place to let it out. But, she said, she was surprised to find out how catty women could be when they were anonymous. While the site is, on the whole, an amazing community, there is definitely a lot of judgment and people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Would this happen in real life? Maybe, but I think that on the whole, people are a lot more civil in person.

And that’s something I think is important for brands to remember. Your customers are, in a way, anonymous. Even if you know their names, when they are talking to you online, they may feel empowered to be extremely harsh. The best thing brands can do is try to talk to them like a person (and, ultimately, make the call when some of these relationships just can’t — and shouldn’t — be saved). Frank stressed that it’s really important for brands to not have Twitter handles that are just @brand with a logo for the avatar; it should be @brandEMPLOYEE NAME with the employee’s photo as the avatar. In Women in the Digital Age, Tiffany, Bianca, and Lisa all agreed that when it comes to social media, people just seem to forget that there is a real person on the other end, reading all the negative comments, Tweets, etc. Brands can have better communication with their users — and diffuse negative situations — if they make an effort to build relationships that feel real. I feel like the best community managers talk to their users as friends and equals (rather than treating them as different, and, by extension, less-than) so their users treat them as friends and equals. The users who flame them anonymously just see them as another big brand who deserves to be taken down a peg; the users who give them constructive criticism or are still respectful when they are upset are the ones who see them as friends.

And, ultimately, constructive criticism is what brands need. In How Not to Piss People Off, Frank reminded us all that we are lucky to have people who speak up; if they are passionate enough to be negative, they are passionate enough to be advocates too. It’s our job to build communities where they care about us enough — and are comfortable enough — to tell us what they need from us.

What do you guys think? 

You can read my previous SXSW session recaps here: 

On Getting People Really Into the Story

On Social Media’s Effect on Our Relationship with Ourselves and Others

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ericka @ The Sweet Life March 19, 2012 at 11:50 am

Rachel, really enjoying your SXSW recaps. I so wish I could have been there but you really did a good job getting some good information for those of us that couldn’t. Thanks so much.


2 Rachel March 19, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying them; I wasn’t sure how they’d be received. Thanks!


3 Mel March 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Wow, so much to think about. Thanks for your recaps – I can’t wait to take some of this information to the boss peeps.

And btw – I’m impressed with how you were able to boil down the major objectives of so many different sessions into a few posts that really drove the messages home. Now, tell us about the parties :)


4 Rachel March 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Haha, parties are next, and then I’m done with SXSW for the next year!

And THANK YOU for your comment!


5 Lauren March 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I actually found this post to be the most helpful. I really do try to leave positive customer feedback when I’ve had a good experience with a company b/c I know that most feedback tends to be negative. I am an incredibly loyal customer. If I am treated well by a brand or satisfied with their product, I will be their biggest advocate. Because of that, nothing frustrates me more when I call to get an issue resolved and it’s either not taken seriously or not resolved. I would have really liked the sessions that you mentioned in this post! Thank you for the great recaps!


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