Social media listening: dear brands, please stop rewarding me for being a grumpy git


I’m getting worried about social media listening strategies. Not in a paranoid, surveillance society way. I’m worried about social media listening strategies because corporations reward me every time I moan; whinges are the new currency, and companies are incentivising me to be grumpy.

Discounting spammers who @ me on twitter every time I mention Apple, iPad, or x-factor I’ve had three moments where I’ve had a corporate interaction as a result of social media listening and each one has come off the back of a moan.

  • When I moaned that Coffee Lounge’s wifi was unreliable and their coffee pretty poor, Urban Coffee Co tweeted me, luring me over with a free croissant.
  • When I tweeted a whinge that a Virgin Wines / uSwitch freebie case of wine I’d received was pretty poor, Naked Wines contacted me with an offer on a case of much better wine that was pretty hard to refuse.
  • When I fired off a 140 character rant about a shitty coffee in Pret, they @ replied me back asking for an address. On Friday I got a £5 gift card and a handwritten note of apology.
All three examples suggest that moaning pays. It’s no wonder online communities are often seen as pretty negative places full of “angry young men”

The Urban Coffee and Naked Wines examples were surprising, but pretty welcome. I don’t think in the grand scheme of things they gave up anymore than they normally would to gain a customer, and they’ve continued to look after me and delight me with every “moment of truth” (as the brand people call transactions and interactions). I’m putting them in the column for “good practice” because they show a bit of entrepreneurial nous. I find the Pret example a little more concerning.

While I’m incentivised to whinge, companies are incentivised to act disproportionally by super serving social media users. I often see comments from those who are making complaints via blog posts and tweets where authors and commenters say:

Well the product and service was terrible, but brand X at least tweeted me about it which shows they’re listening

The classic case studies of companies doing social media are all about this listening. Pret gave me a fiver to show that they were listening. They’ve rewarded a childish petulant and passive aggressive rant with cash, probably more cash than I put through their tills in a year. Why would they do that? Is that good customer service? Or desperation to tie up every loose end on the Internet? And is that even sustainable? 

That’s why I’m worried about social media listening strategies. Brands are far too worried about what the Internet is saying, and every time they smooth the Internet’s furrowed brow by offering treats and rewards, they make the Internet a more negative place because they have incentivised moaning.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research:

  • windscorpion

    Do you think you get the freebies because of who you are, a person of social media influence, and a normal pleb would be easier to ignore?

  • bounder

    It is odd behaviour, and in a way oversteps a line in polite interaction. For all the offers from competitors may be nice, they’re still unsolicited commercial communication—that’s spam, right?Good listening imho is about responding directly to your customers, but for the most part the rest should be nothing more that phrenology—feeling the bumps of the social web and using that to inform real actions:Know that shit wifi in cafés annoys customers? make sure yours is good.Anything else is that pushy salesman we don’t like.

  • Jon Hickman

    @windscorpion not really, I don’t see myself as having any real influence over anything much.

  • Jon Hickman

    @bounder I think you’ve hit the nail on the head really – throwing money at a customer shuts them up but is paper over cracks stuff. It’s hearing not listening, as it doesn’t fix problems. The really silly thing is the lack of proportion used. I’d forgotten about the coffee as soon as I’d drunk it, problem over. But having a bad experience has become one of the things that we talk about. And it’s getting reinforced by treats. Which is basically making me into a puppy that thinks it’s cool to poo on your carpet.That said, the interventions by Urban & Naked were strangely welcome – they pushed the buttons and I bought into it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t find their opening lines a little unsettling though.

  • Jerome Turner

    This weekend I complained on Twitter (and posterous) about being unjustifiably banned from Call of Duty Black Ops, a bit concerned that my stats and progress would be lost. They ban people for doing naughty glitch / modding type of things on there, which I hadn’t, I’d merely attended a modded game, without my knowledge. Anyway a few tweets with them later and it was all sorted, unbanned. I say moaning pays.

  • Jerome Turner