OPINION: Despite faux-pas, consumers will still buy if price and product are right

13 Dec 2014

The poster children of the social media revolution may have reached adolescence but still have plenty of growing up to do.

United breaks guitars but people still fly with the company. FedEx lobs expensive monitors over the iron gates and gets caught on CCTV but people still send packages with the courier delivery service. Ryanair garners 1m negative comments on Facebook (surely the dislike button needs to be added, if for them alone?) for people giving off about a 60 charge for printing out a boarding pass at the airport but people still travel with the airline.

And so it goes on; the people have spoken famously against Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, Snickers, Honda, Natwest, Starbucks, GoDaddy and Habitat, however, the people not-so-famously still eat, drive, drink and buy the products and services those companies purvey. Sure, the various social media challenges they’ve faced have been embarrassing, and they shouldn’t have happened, yet they are far from the “disasters” that the blogosphere would have you believe they are.

A well-timed follow-up press release or a Tiger-Woods-esque tearful statement from a humbled CEO, and equilibrium is apparently restored.

No one is pretending that these things are good for the organisations in question, or that their reputation is enhanced by it, but one is left pondering if anyone gives a damn about the fact that this stuff has happened. Or do enough people give a damn in enough numbers for us to assert that these occurrences have impacted brand reputation materially or negatively influenced sales? I doubt it.

Or to ask the question another way, how many randomers on social networks does it take to have the same impact as a single article on advice and review site Which?

Those Facebook posts

Perhaps I’m just rallying against my own social media group. Within my own Twitter and Facebook circles, I often read “F**k you (insert airline here), I had a big meeting in London today and your cancelled flight means I won’t make it. WE ARE TRYING TO DO WIN BUSINESS.” or “Do NOT eat at (insert restaurant here), I knew from the minute we arrived that the waitress didn’t like my new hairstyle, and the Irish coffee was made with an inferior whiskey” or my own personal bête-noire (admittedly only marginally related to the topic at hand) “Here is a picture of little Johnny winning the cup. Don’t know where he gets his good looks, brains, talent, sporting ability, etc from. #chipofftheoldblock”.

I bet you see those kinds of posts on your Twitter feed and Facebook news feed too, yes? And like me, I bet your social contacts who write that stuff are the self-obsessed, whose lives seem full of first-world problems #valetparkingveryslowoutsidethecheeseshoptoday.

The harsh reality would appear to be that we remain too cheap to really care too much about occasional organisational faux-pas and that if businesses still offer us the right product in the right place at the right price, which has been well promoted, we’ll buy.

The business-customer power pendulum

The power pendulum, which pre-internet was swinging firmly on the side of the organisation, has of course swung firmly towards the customer. However, that power isn’t exercised in the headline-grabbing broken guitars of United or by individuals giving off about grounded flights, or by Honda getting caught asking staff to say great stuff about their cars, or by Starbucks responding to a comedian who said their coffee smells of toilet. 

Rather, influence is exercised in the humdrum business of comments, ratings, and reviews for products and services on e-commerce and third-party review sites. Even then, it only impacts reputation materially when customers comment in adequate numbers.

It is of course better for organisations if these comments, ratings and reviews are positive rather than negative, however a celebrity endorsement or positive review from an authority figure still trumps thousands, if not millions, of comments from the average punter.

So United doesn’t break guitars. It broke Dave Carroll of little-known Canadian country-and-western outfit Sons of Maxwell’s guitar. Maybe they just reached the same conclusion that the rest of us reached some time ago, that the world has enough Canadian country-and-western music already.

Gareth Dunlop

 Gareth Dunlop Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Invest NI, Power NI, 3 Mobile, Ordnance Survey Ireland, and Independent News and Media. Visit Fathom online.

Shopping with smartphone image via Shutterstock

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.