Social media monitoring is the subject of a media furore. Can it survive and what can firms do to ensure their use of monitoring tools won't damage their reputation?
The burgeoning area of social media monitoring has come under fire from a UK national newspaper over 'revelations' that a number of large brands are using the specialised software to track and resolve customer complaints.
In its article How 'BT Sarah' spies on your Facebook account: secret new software allows BT and other firms to trawl internet looking for disgruntled customers, the Daily Mail slams organisations such as BT, easyJet and the Carphone Warehouse for using the software - which is neither secret nor new - to target social network users who have been making complaints about them to friends. The companies concerned then contacted the complainants in an attempt to solve their problems.
The market for social media monitoring tools has been growing rapidly, with more than 200 products currently available, and the tool is seen as an integral component of social media strategies, enabling firms to monitor public conversations about their brands to gauge sentiment and, if necessary, respond to boost levels of customer care.
General Motors, for example, doubled its team of social media agents in March this year in a bid to become more proactive in responding to customers’ online gripes and burnish its tarnished post-bankruptcy image. And the vendors named in the Mail article also emphasised that they used the software to turn potentially negative situations into positive ones. An easyJet spokesman told the newspaper that: "When they [customers] realise we are trying to help, they are quite surprised and positive."
Carphone Warehouse said that customers were "often blown away" that it was listening and were "overwhelmingly positive" about the experience. BT added: "We are not picking up on anything private. These are all discussions that can be seen by anyone on the web. I would liken it to someone having a conversation in a pub – it’s just a very big pub."
A sensitive issue
However, in the wake of scandals surrounding the likes of Facebook and Google, the public is extremely sensitive to issues around privacy. The Daily Mail has a history of attacks on social media, with the latest article coming weeks after its now infamous piece titled How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. But it also has a reputation for stirring up moral outrage amongst its audience, which numbers some two million. As such, a campaign against social media monitoring feeding privacy concerns could have huge implications for both the tool and social media strategies at large.
The privacy bodies quoted in the article were up in arms about the practice. Simon Davies of human rights group Privacy International, told the Mail: "People venting to their friends do not suddenly expect the object of their anger to be listening in and then to butt in on their conversations. This is nothing short of outright spying. It may not be illegal, but it is morally wrong."
Yaman Akdeniz of online privacy group Cyber-Rights believed that such activity was against the law, however. "These may be public conversations, but firms should not be contacting users without their consent," he said.
Nathan Murphy, a co-founder of social media monitoring firm Repskan insists that businesses using social media monitoring are on solid legal ground: "They are not invading the privacy of users as they are only able to collect mentions of their brand from publically accessible content; often collected and indexed through third party companies like Google. Complaining about this would be like newspapers complaining that companies compile clippings of articles written about them to analyse their coverage."
However, regardless of legal safety, there is the matter of reputational damage to those firms using monitoring technology. As the chief protagonist of the Mail’s article, BT was quick to defend its actions in a statement:
"We have been helping social media users who make public postings of issues with BT for over a year, with immensely positive feedback. Many third-party forums have helped us do this as it is so useful to their members. There is no 'secret' software as described in the Mail on Sunday article, the software concerned has been entered for awards and described widely at conferences, we are very proud of its development and implementation. We cannot, and would not, look at postings that are intended to be private, whether on Facebook or anywhere else. Our intention is to help customers proactively with problems. Many BT people naturally go out of their way to help people with advice on our products and services if they hear of issues; we are equally proud of our people's determination away from social media to provide great customer service."
Murphy also felt disappointed with the newspaper’s angle. "Generally speaking the Daily Mail have taken an aggressive and largely ignorant approach to this topic; the vast majority of social media monitoring is carried out by companies is focused to providing better customer service or listening to customer complaints or recommendations for products and services. In this situation there really is no loser.
"Is it spying? Not really; spying suggests a process of delving in to conversations that people do not wish to be public. When you are publishing your views in a public forum you can expect people to read them."
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that privacy is an enormously emotive issue at present, and consumer groups seem unsurprised by the furore surrounding monitoring. "Consumers are extremely concerned about how their personal data is collected online and they need clear information about how to keep it private," says Linda Weatherhead, spokeswoman for Consumer Focus, formerly the National Consumer Council. "If people’s online activity is being monitored they should be told and no information should be collected without a person’s consent. Websites need to make it clear to people what information about them is being collected, what it will be used for and who it will be given to."
David Johansson of Avail Intelligence can also understand public discontent: "Many consumers are unaware that what they write on social networks may be publicly available on the internet for anyone else to read. Due to this, a call from a brand in response to what they regarded as a private complaint will easily lead to negative feeling."
Privacy settings and best practice
It all seems to boil down to the issue of privacy settings again – something that Facebook has been dragged over the coals for recently. If the public is educated about how to keep messages that they don’t want on public display private, then this whole issue is moot.
"Although some users may be surprised to find this is happening, the reality is that unless they make use of suitable privacy controls they are essentially posting comments in a public space. As such, anyone is free to take a look; including those that they are commenting about," emphasises Steve Furnell, a senior member of the IEEE and Professor of Information Systems Security at the University of Plymouth.
"The fact that this has raised concern is indicative of a wider awareness problem: many people still do not properly appreciate the technology that they are using, and are consequently underestimating the extent of their online audience and making incorrect assumptions about things such as privacy defaults. In many cases, part of the problem also lies with how related options are made available to users and how easily they can understand them."
However, recent developments with Facebook, could begin to raise awareness of this issue – something that would certainly put the public at ease, and also leave businesses clear about where they stand with the use of social media data.
"The problem stems from a lack of knowledge of privacy online from the consumer side," agrees Alex Horner of EHS 4D Digital. "But the mass publicity generated by Facebook’s recent measures to simplify privacy settings will certainly help educate people about the types of information they should and shouldn’t make public online."
Nonetheless, businesses also have to take responsibility themselves, and there are steps that they can take to ensure that they are keeping to best practice. "Beyond the responsibility an individual has to protect their own data, there is also well established self governance in social media through bodies like the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association who have established best practice for SM practitioners around consumer outreach in all its forms – including customer service," says Simon Quance, head of social media strategy at 20:20. "Following their guidelines protects consumers from business malpractice and supports the concept that social media are highly valued channels for genuine customer feedback, insight and engagement and not a wild west that can be damaged by short-term customer service strategy and spammers."
Irrespective of best practices and growing consumer awareness of privacy settings, the industry will still be aware that it will have to keep a keen eye on the fall-out from the Mail’s article for the time being. "It would be a real shame if articles such as this lead to consumer backlash against companies using social media for customer service. As long as these tools have a focus on customer service and ‘doing good’, rather than selling products or services, then I believe they should be embraced by brands and consumers alike," notes Stephen Waddington, MD of Speed.
But as an interesting post script to this feature, it’s also worth highlighting one other "hardcore" user of web analytics to track and monitor visits online. The tool WASP allows users to see what analytics packages a website uses to analyse its traffic – and one company that is a major user of analytics packages including Omniture, ComScore and Sophus3 is none other than……. The Daily Mail. The mind boggles.