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Six top tips to avoid a Twitter Q&A disaster

3rd Feb 2014
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If your business has hired a social media mogul as part of its transition towards a more consumer-friendly focus, chances are they’ve suggested you host a Twitter Q&A session to engage more effectively with your customers. Everyone is at it, from Waitrose to McDonalds. But there are perils; oh there are perils…

Just ask British Gas, which ran a Q&A session in October with the hashtag #AskBG on the day it also announced a national price-hike of around 9%, receiving responses such as:

@BritishGas When the choice is between food, heat or a roof over your head which one would you choose? #AskBG #disability #poverty

And hundreds more like it. It didn’t go well. JP Morgan fared even worse. In a mere attempt to usher in its new vice-chairman in November, it decided engagement was the best form of introduction, so announced a Twitter questions round with #AskJPM as the hashtag. But then thousands of tweets like this happened:

How much blood do your executives consume on a monthly basis? #AskJPM

And it had to can the campaign before it even started. It was a PR disaster. Turns out in the Twittersphere, bankers were still public enemy number one.

So, why would you bother? Well, it’s argued that done correctly, a Twitter Q&A session can create an easy-to-access, positive and lively debate with customers and potential customers that wouldn’t usually interact. That kind of thing is gold dust for marketers and executives trying to build a customer-centric brand, so it’s got to be worth the gamble, right? For every failure there’s a success story. Just check Virgin’s blog for proof.

As long as you tread carefully, and abide by certain rules, a Twitter Q&A session can add more personality to your brand, not blow it to smithereens. Which is probably why even those businesses most likely to experience a public hiding are persevering with the idea. Just #AskRyanair about that one. And try to follow these essential guidelines, when developing your own session:  

1. Plan every detail of the campaign

The bungled British Gas Q&A is a good example of this point. Timing a Twitter Q&A session around a big PR story is never going to work, so check with your communications team to make sure you are conducting your Q&A around either a) some positive news or b) no news at all.

There are some other things you need to ask yourself in advance of your planning – what’s your customer base? Do they already engage with you on Twitter? What are you aiming to achieve through this campaign? How will you market the Q&A in advance? Once you’ve got some answers to these questions, you can plan when you want to do it, who will be involved and what topics you expect to be covered.

“It’s vital to have a crisis management plan in place and then a scenario plan according to the different ways your Q&A could go wrong,” says Charlotte Hunter, social media manager at  BLOOM Worldwide. “Have a clear protocol for handling those scenarios should they arise, and brief senior stakeholders on the plan and get their buy-in, including warning them of potential risks. This could be delivered as a SWOT analysis to give a balanced view of the potential of a Q&A. Just make sure you manage expectations.”

2. Choose the right person to host the session

Ryanair chose its CEO, Michael O’Leary for their first Twitter Q&A last October. His renowned brashness meant the session was always going to be lively, and if moderated correctly, could have been a welcome relief from the classic PR-restricted Q&A many companies opt for. But his bumptious nature got the better of him, when he responded to a question by a female Tweeter with “Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL”, which resulted in a backlash and a number of tweets claiming the budget airline boss was “sexist”. Not exactly the route you’d hope the session would go down.

“Choosing the right person for your Q&A is crucial,” says Adam Gray, social media advisor and author of Brilliant Social Media. “The person should be the most senior person available, but someone with charisma. Someone who is empowered to actually give answers and solve problems rather than just divert attention or apologise. Just make sure there's someone on hand to moderate them.”

3. Create an appropriate #hashtag

McDonalds can probably back this statement up. In 2012 they ran a campaign #MeetTheFarmers but response was flagging, so they switched their hashtag to #McDStories. The Twittersphere quickly picked up on it and people started posting the negative experiences they’d had at McDonalds alongside the hashtag.

“The hashtag is extremely important,” says Carolyn Blunt, social media guru and owner of Real Results. “It should be memorable, and short yet descriptive or linked to the content. If an injection of humour is added then there is even more chances of success. 

“Check it doesn’t already have any other connotations or uses by running it through Twitter and Google though.  If you are really undecided put two or three options to the public vote in a tweet or a community question and ask people to reply using the hash tag they favour, you would easily be able to sort these responses and see which is the most popular.”

So, for instance, if you’re promoting, say, an album release party for your client, who, say, happens to be called Susan Boyle, maybe check the connotations attached to running with the hashtag #susanalbumparty before you run it. Not instantly obvious, but definitely a blunder…

4. Be prepared for negativity

Waitrose were ridiculed for running the Twitter campaign ‘I shop at Waitrose because… #WaitroseReasons’ by many industry commentators, with Tweet responses including “I shop at Waitrose because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people," and "I also shop at Waitrose because I was once in the Holloway Road branch and heard a dad say 'Put the papaya down, Orlando!'”.

However, the brand responded to many of the Tweeters by commending their sense of humour, and after the campaign, tweeted:

"Thanks for all the genuine and funny #WaitroseReasons tweets. We always like to hear what you think and enjoyed reading most of them."

"Embrace your inner troll," says Neil Major, strategy director for "Spend time working out what people would dislike about your brand or product. Be destructive. Try to see things through cynical eyes and unlearn the good motives you know lay behind what you're planning. 
"But always get someone else’s opinion over whether your potential responses are funny. The fine line is whether the customer will think you’re taking their opinion is a joke. If they’re already being funny in their negativity, that’s a good sign. Nevertheless, try again to think what the worst that could happen is in the situation. What sort of story would the interaction make if it ended up on Buzzfeed or Us vs. Them?" 
5. Create links in advance and settle in-depth queries offline
This is pretty straight-forward. Twitter’s appeal is its 140 character limit, but this is often a restriction when trying to answer questions on-the-fly. The best way of counteracting this is by considering all the potential questions people may ask during a session, and the places and contacts on your company website that may be able to resolve them successfully. And remember to have all your links shortened in advance, using an online link shortening tool (there’s plenty out there on Google).   

“For difficult, personal or particularly tricky situations try to steer the conversations offline by either offering them an email or phone number to contact,” says Andy Headington, CEO at Adido. “Alternatively ask them to direct message you with their details so you can arrange someone to contact them directly. Always make sure the person contacting them back knows all the details of the situation; this personal touch will go a long way.”

6. Broadcast your channel for reporting results

The point of hosting a Twitter Q&A is to gain results. But how you broadcast those results may be just as vital as the results themselves. Virgin are considered pioneers in this regard, regularly updating their company blogs with customer feedback and Q&A responses. Transparency is key – respondents want to know that your company is hosting a session because they want to make changes for the better and what their customers involved in making those changes, as well as their employees.   

“It’s good practice to report on results internally, as well as on the company’s marketing channels,” says Tamara Littleton, CEO of social media management agency, eModeration. “Q&As can often provide valuable insight to internal departments such as product development, marketing and customer services, but also to those involved externally too.

“It’s a good idea to post an update blog at a later date, detailing what the Q&A feedback was, and any changes that the business has implemented as a result. People want to see evidence that the business is listening to them, especially when they've been asked to get involved in a Twitter Q&A, and they've taken the time to get involved. It'll also encourage them to participate in the future.”

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