Reflect back with me to April 19, 1775...
With the might of the British Empire behind them, the British infantry believed it was utterly invincible. Imagine its surprise when it became surrounded by the Minute Men and later, many more of the American colonists. In the tension that followed, one nervous British infantryman fired upon the colonists, which started an exchange of fire from both sides. With this one shot that later became known as the shot heard 'round the world, the revolutionary war had begun.
Slightly more recently, in September of 2013, Chicago-based business owner and Twitter user Hasan Syed made history after British Airways lost his parents luggage on a flight from Chicago to Paris. Syed did something nobody has ever done before: he bought a series of promoted tweets on Twitter to express his frustration and displeasure.
Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous
Checkout @British_Airways state-of-the-art baggage handling system [with photo of horse and buggy]
@British_Airways is the worst airline ever. Lost my luggage and can't even track it down Absolutely pathetic
A full 7 hours later, @British_Airways responded:
Sorry for the delay in responding, our twitter feed is open 09:00-17:00 GMT. Please DM [direct message] your baggage ref and we'll look into this.
By any account, Syed is no social media powerhouse. As of February 2014, he still had only 1,129 followers and 436 tweets. The sponsored tweet, however, for which he spent $1,000.00, yielded 76,000 impressions and 14,000 engagements (replies, retweets, etc.), all of which sided with him against the brand or broadcast their own, similar stories. Syed's tweet also quickly entered the news cycle, where his story appeared on BBC News, Time, Fox News, the Guardian, NBC News, Mashable, Huffington Post, and others.
With Hasan Syed's "tweet heard 'round the world" on September 2, 2013, the revolutionary war for customer control of your brand had begun. That same day, Andy Witt (@designingWell) tweeted:
What if patients were more forward and public with their frustration with hospitals like Hasan Syed was with @British_Airways?
Just like the British regulars, big companies have long thought they were utterly invincible-they controlled the messages, the media, and the conversations with their customers, when they bothered to have them. But to Andy Witt's point, what if one (or more) of your key customers - by size, revenue, influence, or other criterion - broadcast their frustration with your company to the public and to your other customers? What would the impact on your brand look like? Would it be inconsequential? Or could it cost millions of dollars in advertising to rectify?
Let's be honest. The age of cool products and feel-good service has come and gone. Social media, with all it empowers, is here to stay and still growing. It is not enough to listen to and pacify customers. Now, more than ever, reputations and relationships with customers can be tarnished, if not destroyed, with a few simple keystrokes. Customers are taking charge. They clearly want a voice.
We've entered the age of engagement. Today we have to engage the Hasan Syed's of the world: collaborate with them to help fix our problems and enlist them as our sales force to dramatically grow our businesses. In the days ahead, the most successful companies will grow only as they engage customers in customer acquisition, retention, operations, innovation, and even strategy.