This is what Shawn Morton would look like if he had been made of LEGO -- the personal website of Shawn Morton
UPDATE: This blog has been retired as of August 2011. See this post for more information or connect with me on Twitter.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Twitter: a thin line between "cool" and "creepy"
One of the hotter topics in social media lately has been how companies are using Twitter. Business Week recently published an article that shared how GM, Southwest and JetBlue have been using Twitter to respond comments and complaints.

In the article, Ray Valdes from Gartner says that Twitter is a useful brand-monitoring tool, but it "can come across as a little creepy."

One of the stories was from Twitter user Christofer Hoff who got a Twitter reply minutes after complaining about a delay for his Southwest flight. He described the experience as "cool and frightening at the same time."

My role at Nationwide is to establish our strategy and best practices around social media. One of my personal goals is to be more "cool" than "creepy" when it comes to interacting with our customers.

In the past 24 hours, I have managed to do both.

The cool
Yesterday morning, I got a direct message from @timjeby. He pointed me to a post from someone who was having a problem with their Nationwide 401k.

"Closing down my Nationwide 401k account(s). General CS Dept was great, but was never able to get actual advisor on phone to guide changes."

Within 20 minutes of the original post, I was able to respond to our customer via Twitter and we had the following exchange:

Me: "Would like to hear more about your experience with us. DM me or e-mail mortons7 at nationwide dot com."

Our customer: "@nationwide: Thanks for your response. Wheel is already in motion to close it all down, but happy to share experiences with you. Will email."

Me: "We're sorry to lose you. Thanks for your willingness to share your experience with us, though."

We then took the discussion off Twitter and continued it via e-mail. I was able to get more details about the situation and let her know that I would follow up with the appropriate people internally.

She appreciated the outreach and I appreciated her willingness to share her story with us.

The creepy
Fast forward to this morning. Fresh off that positive experience, I came across this post:

"FYI - Nationwide Insurance has poor claim service."

Unlike the previous example, this was a pretty generic comment. I didn't feel like it warranted a public response of "Sorry to hear about your experience. Let me know if I can help." I felt that would have come off as insincere since I didn't know enough about the situation.

So instead of reaching out publicly, I decided to follow the user (using my personal Twitter account which lists that I work at Nationwide) who posted it *without* replying. My intention wasn't to be a stalker. I was actually trying to acknowledge the person's issue (since he would get an e-mail that I was following him) and give him an opportunity to make a connection by following me back (if he wanted to). To me, that would have been a sort of "opt-in" to direct message him (since you have to be mutual followers to send a direct message) to ask for more info rather than simply post the more generic public reply.

If he didn't follow back, I would take that as a "thanks-but-no-thanks" response and let it go. However, he would know that we were aware of the situation.

Unfortunately, he didn't follow my convoluted logic. A few hours later, he posted this to one of his Twitter friends:

"One crack about Nationwide and now I got this 'social media strategist' following me. Remind you of the Comcast thing?"

Yikes! While Comcast has been working hard to improve their Twitter interactions, I've been around Twitter long enough to know that he didn't mean that as a compliment. I was a Twitter stalker. And the only thing lower on the Twitter foodchain than a stalker is a spammer.

Community response
I shared the experience with the community on Twitter and got some great feedback. Some were completely fine with approach.

@warrenss said: "Sounds like he doesn't understand what the twitter community is all about."

@tgwilson said: "Weird. Seems like a fine approach to me. Seems like they'd think it's kinda' cool."

Others felt it could be a little stalkerish or passive-aggressive to follow and not reply.

@soldierant said: "Depends. If his comment was ( - ) then a follow-w/o-comment seems passive aggressive. If ( + ) then… no worries."

@brianherbert said: "Seems a little Big Brotherish, even if you are reading his tweets anyway."

Tweetin' ain't easy
These two experiences highlight how challenging it can be for companies to connect in an authentic way with their customers (or critics) using social media.

So much of how your message is perceived will be influenced by how people already feel about your brand. That can be tough to determine in 140 characters.

Would Apple be considered a stalker for following someone who posted something negative about their iPhone? How about Microsoft for following someone who hates Vista? I'm betting each of those would be seen differently based on how people feel about the companies. Same tactic, but different result.

I think Matt Hames (@mhames), who was responding to Jason Falls' challenge to describe social media in two words or less, summed it up when he said, "Respond accordingly."

About Shawn Morton

Married father of 6; VP of Social Media at JPMorgan Chase; gluten-free; gadget enthusiast; hair metal aficionado; #Movember man View more on LinkedIn.