Social media: The perils of going too far when trying to make a brand interactive

The perceived wisdom on social networks goes that people would much rather converse with real people than brands. That makes sense, of course, but it does therefore pose a problem: How do you get people interacting with your brand?

The solution, in many cases, has been to try and give the brand a personality, or to make the brand interactive and personal – and in many cases, it works. A neat, if simple idea I saw recently was from Northern Rail, which just made sure followers know the name of the person in front of the keyboard today:

Such an approach doesn’t come without its pitfalls, as another rail operator, London Midland, demonstrated at the weekend. London Midland operate trains principally around the Midlands and, as far as Twitter is concerned, is very good – quick to deliver news about delays, quick to reply to users and generally much more useful than sites such as National Rail. It also feels like one of those jobs where the person behind the keyboard is on to a hiding to nothing at times – there are only so many ways to apologise for a service not having enough carriages, after all.

So what are the pitfalls? One was demonstrated on Sunday when someone was struck by a train at a suburban train station, there were obvious delays. LondonMidland has attracted some criticism, and a call from the Samaritans, for tweets such as the following:

and…

In the comments in an article written about this for the Birmingham Mail, two readers have suggested it’s a non-story, and that such stories will lead to London Midlands doing less to inform passengers about what is going on.

That doesn’t appear to be the case – indeed, they were tweeting about a similar incident today, but in a more restrained manner, but this case does raise an interesting point: How do you avoid overstepping the mark when trying to make a brand interactive?

I’m not sure there’s an obvious answer. I’d like to think that if I’d been the person behind the keyboard that night, I wouldn’t have answered the questions on how someone is struck by a train at all – but then again, as a journalist, the sensitivities around a suspected suicide are drummed into you throughout training.

It’s worth noting that the train involved wasn’t a London Midland train, it was operated by Cross Country – which hadn’t updated its Twitter account for two days when the accident took place.

Ultimately, this, to me,  is a case of weighing up the pros and cons of being so open on Twitter. The pros are that you build up customer loyalty, the risk being that you can go too far when being chatty as a brand.

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