Sunday, June 6, 2010

Brands and social media - it's not spying

There's a story at Mail Online today (and presumably also in The Mail on Sunday accordingly, it's not a paper I take) where leading brands are being accused of spying on their customers by taking part in conversations about them on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Some of Britain’s biggest firms were last night accused of ‘spying’ on their customers after they admitted ‘listening in’ on disgruntled conversations on the internet.

The companies include BT, which uses specially developed software to scan for negative comments about it on websites including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

[...] privacy campaigners have accused them of ‘outright spying’ while legal experts have suggested that firms making unsolicited approaches to customers could fall foul of data protection laws.
This is just not the case. Companies such as BT, and us at Virgin Media, are present on social media as we're aware that our customers are talking about us and want to hear what they have to say - and to help where it's appropriate to do so.

As people may know, we have had a presence on Twitter since December 2008 as a company, and with a number of our more enthusiastic staff members having been on the site earlier than that it was clear that customers were on Twitter asking questions about our products and seeking help - so naturally we had to join in that conversation, which is going to happen about us whether we're involved in it or not.People posting on Twitter generally have their profiles in public (we can't see what they post otherwise, as it requires people to be following each other to see what is being posted via a protected account) and hence what they post is open to be viewed by anyone on the web, so why would a brand not be using social media monitoring tools to see what is being said about them and act on it accordingly?

Clearly companies need to be using their judgment when engaging with customers on sites such as Twitter, and I wouldn't begin to claim we've always got it right. You need to learn from your mistakes, and the only way to do so is dive in 'boots and all' and engage with your customers.

We set up a Twitter team in our customer care area (Billy, Sam and Pete for anyone who has dealt with them) to deal with customers seeking help on Twitter, and the results have been fantastic.

Their first priority is to help customers who message us direct (i.e. the equivalent of sending us an e-mail) with enquiries and/or asking for help, and we've found that generally the quickest way to solve problems is for customers to e-mail in some details and the team then gets on the case to resolve the issue.

They're empowered to do so and act as if they were the customer internally - which has enabled internal facing areas of the business to get some great, instant direct feedback from customers and resulted in many process improvements that benefit our customers as a whole.

What the team also does is to use various social media monitoring tools to see Twitter users talking about Virgin Media but not 'to' us direct. These can be customers (sometimes including celebs) talking to each other, non customers querying our products and services, the media, analysts and others - and this is where the team makes a judgment call as to how to engage, if we need to at all.

The likes of media and analysts are fairly straightforward, and our media relations team deals with these either via our main feed (which our head of media relations setup alongside myself in the first place, and still posts to regularly) or by taking it offline to talk to the respondent direct - often the most appropriate way as it's difficult to answer often complex media enquiries in 140 characters!

Customers talking about problems they are experiencing but not to us direct are the main source of our 'wow' experiences - or, as someone once said, taking them from woe to wow. Many people aren't aware that we have a presence on Twitter, and when we step in to a conversation or post to someone talking about us the reaction is almost universally positive.

Picking up that customer's issue and resolving it tends to be the type of experience that results in external blogs (for example here and here), independent recognition and thank you e-mails into us from customers - and the success stories help us reiterate internally the importance of engagement in social media from a customer service perspective.

We regularly survey our customers who interact with Virgin Media as to what their experience is, using the Net Promoter® Score (NPS) framework. It's little heard of within what is effectively a complaints function (which is what the Twitter team does much of the time) for a customer to recommend their experience and give a 9 or 10 (out of 10) score on their survey - but our Twitter team hits this time and again, breaking many advocacy records along the way.

Using social media monitoring tools to find out what is being said about you and to act on it is not spying - it's moving with the times and realising that as a company you need to engage with a customer in the way they wish to speak to you or even about you - you just need to use your common sense and learn where it is and isn't appropriate to engage with users, and on the best way to do so.

And our experience tells us that it's also what our customers want.


  1. Hmm - the Daily Mail writing ill informed articles about subjects the journalists or editorial team know nothing about - pretty much par for the course. The Daily Mail - its like spending 20minutes in a mental hospital

  2. Alex, so pleasing to hear this. Anyone who says organisations are using the social web to "spy" on customers is very misguided indeed. If people choose online social channels to talk about brands, services and products then it makes 100% complete sense for such organisations to be accessible on these channels too. Proactively helping people is surely a very good thing. It also demonstrates innovation and transparency. All credit to organisations such as yours that adopt this approach. Karl

  3. Thank you for this sensible response. When I was unable to get a satisfactory resolution to a problem with VM over the phone I publicly tweeted deliberately to see if that channel worked any better (it did - I hope Billy McD. still works there, because he's great).

    Then again, I know the difference between public and private online. I fail to see why a business should be accountable if no-one else does. And offering to help is hardly harrassment.

  4. Thanks Alex - good name you have there.

    Yep, Billy's still around and is a top man.


  5. Great post Alex, I agree with u 100%. Before working with VM, I had a problem with the service, I was frustrated & annoyed as CSC didn't give any solutions when the problem wasn't with us. I then tweeted about it & within 10 mins the VM Team responded & I discussed it with them. The problem was then sorted within a few days. As a customer at that ... See morepoint, I loved the fact that the company was using twitter as an added customer support tool. It does allow for good NPS scores and in my eyes, can do no wrong.

    Social Media is there for a reason. Mobile Phone Providers use it too, for exactly the same reasons. I even once ranted about car insurance ppl on twitter & the company tweeted me to offer help.

    The author of the article clearly doesn't know exactly what goes on in social media, its all about interaction.

    Or maybe it was a slow news day so they made this crap up.

  6. I couldn't agree more with you Alex and thanks for commenting on the article.

    Proactive customer service is the future and I strongly believe this is for the better. What it really boils down to is making the experience for the customer a better one while also being able to understand their needs to a greater extent. The objective is not to spy on users and infringe on their privacy, to brand it as that is just misleading.


    Olivia Landolt
    Marketing and Community Manager

    UK focused Radian6 partner

  7. Yep, great post Alex - couldn't agree with you more and you've made a brilliant counter argument here. Yet another mail #fail regarding social media.

  8. Alex,

    I completely agree with your thoughts, although I am biased given that I work for Sysomos, which provides social media monitoring services.

    The concerns about "spying" should not be dismissed but they strike me as alarmist compared with the benefits of listening to what's happening within the social media landscape.

    These benefits include better customer service, improvements in products due to real-time feedback, and ideas about new products based on what consumers are saying.

    As well, I would point out that companies using social media monitoring can only listen to public conversations that people voluntarily put on the Web that anyone can see.

    cheers, Mark

    Mark Evans
    Director of Communications
    Sysomos Inc.

  9. Alex, well written - nice response to a very poorly researched article!
    I often wonder why people who write public post feel that they're content is "secret" and just for their friends?!
    Anything I write and post anywhere on the various social media platforms is written with my daughter and future grand children in mind. I only write stuff I'm happy for anyone to see and read.
    Plus, I'm a people's person - I often speak to strangers on a train or bus or in a shop of coffee shop and the beauty of social media I can now "listen" in on conversations which are interesting to me and my business and I can and am encouraged to join in! Isn;t that just wonderful.
    People fear that the online worlds of Generation Y will lead to the loss of conversation and social skills. I think the exact opposite is happening and the sooner people understand this the better. Just like the journalist who wrote the piece in the Daily Mail and the people who were quoted like Simon Davies who said "it's morally wrong" to listen to conversations on Twitter and Liberal Democrat MP Alan Reid calling for an investigation.
    They are so out of touch with reality it's untrue. An investigation?? The whole point of Twitter and Facebook is to post stuff which creates conversations with people you know and people you don't know.
    If you want to be completely anti-social then DON'T post anything online!
    My father-in-law has been having trouble with his BT Broadband and I have been helping him. Thankfully @btcare on Twitter were "spying" on me so they got in touch - shock horror! Investigate investigate! As if!!!!
    I was so impressed and within 2 hours of my first tweet I had spoken to a nice guy called Nigel and BT are now on the case and sorting out the problem with my father-in-law's broadband. All due to BT being engaged and listening (NOT spying at all) to their customers. I have since tweeted good things about BT to my followers on Twitter.
    So wake up world and get of your high horses and get in the game!
    Investigate that Alan Reid - or better still, you could speak to your Government's Director of Digital Engagement -

  10. Thanks for that Dickie (and for the comments from others).

    I tend to be a glass half full kind of guy, and wonder what question(s) were posed to the people who are quoted by the journalist and how it was positioned.


  11. Yep agreed Alex, we'll never know the way it was positioned and these small quoates can be taken so out of context, but even though - "investigation"!!
    I shake my head in disbelief :-)

  12. Sorry Alex, bit late reading this post (and indeed your blog) but just had to add my 2 cents worth as I've always told friends how much I like VM's presence on Twitter. I've 'spoken' with Sam a few times and have always found the team most helpful.

    Oh and despite being from NZ, I guess you're ok too !

  13. Thanks for the comment - we did well in the football this week you know :-)

    Sam and the team are legends and the feedback is always appreciated ... cheers!


  14. Alex, lots of discussion on this topic and in the 2 weeks since the mail article, clients I have spoken with about it rightly agree it is a media beat-up.

    I penned my thoughts on this over at

    Andrew Grill