I recently flew into San Jose airport with the task of making my way to San Mateo, nearly 30 miles up the peninsula. In the name of saving my hosts a rental car charge, I hopped the shuttle bus to the Santa Clara train station to pick up the usually reliable CalTrain to my destination.
I arrived at the train station at about 1 a.m. body time, looking forward to napping on the hour-long ride north. Only the train didn’t come. For a long time. After about 20 minutes hour of waiting, I pulled out my smart phone to check Twitter. Success! CalTrain had an account. Surely there would be an explanation of the delay there.
Unfortunately, the most recent Caltrain tweet was from several hours earlier, referring to an unrelated schedule change. There was nothing to explain the current delay. As I made my way slowly northward that night by alternative means, I kept an eye on the CalTrain Twitter feed but could find nothing to explain the outage that had stranded thousands of people in one of the nation’s busiest rail corridors.
CalTrain deserves credit for adopting an important customer communication tool, but it deserves a spanking for failing to understand the consequences of that action. It’s easy to sign on to any social platform these days, but having an account and using it appropriately are two different things. CalTrain had created an expectation that it would communicate with its riders and then failed to deliver. It would have been better off not using the tools in the first place.
This wasn’t my first brush with Twitter dysfunction. A couple of months earlier, I had tweeted frustration about my credit card company’s practice of suspending accounts over unspecified security concerns. I was surprised to receive a reply tweet from a representative of the bank offering to help. I quickly posed a follow-up question and waited for a reply. That was in February. I’m still waiting.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later I found myself across the dinner table from that very same bank representative. He explained that for the past several months he had been the sole person assigned to monitor Twitter at a company with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It was an impossible task.
The bank was shooting itself in the foot. Regardless of whether it earnestly desired to engage with customers or was just trying to be trendy, it had created an expectation that it couldn’t possibly fulfill. Enabling someone to respond a little bit was worse than not responding at all.
Paving Cow Paths
Social media has turned the corner in the last two years. Twitter and Facebook badges are now everywhere, and a company that is active on social platforms uses an average of eight of them.
Unfortunately, a lot of these businesses don’t know what they’re doing. Scan the Twitter pages of a few big brands and you’ll see lots of self-congratulatory promotional messages but precious few “@ replies” or retweets. These companies are doing the 21st century equivalent of paving the cow paths: applying new tools to old processes.
What many marketers have failed to grasp is that the tools of new media aren’t just about publishing; they’re also about conversing. A Twitter feed, blog or Facebook page that delivers a message without acknowledging replies is an insult. As a rule of thumb, every Twitter inquiry should be answered within 24 hours. Blog comments should be answered within 48. Are you ready to make that commitment? If not, then limit your activities until you are. It’s better to be late than clueless.