Social Media Perfect Storm: A Cautionary Tale

Ok, I've kept my mouth shut long enough--I was not going to blog about this because it would probably mean I'd never see my free cloud computer, but at this rate it doesn't look like that's going to happen anyway. I'm sacrificing my potential blogging mother lode--free computer in exchange for promoting it via social media--to prove a point about the power of social media.

Beware: this is going to be a long post because I've kept this pent up for so long and think it's kind of fascinating.

Back in June I happened on a post on Craigslist looking for "Brand Angels" to promote a new "green" computer. They were looking for people who knew how to generate buzz in the blogosphere and were well-versed in social media. I loved the concept--and wanted not only the free computer but a chance to get in on the ground floor should this product turn out to be the next big thing. I sent them an email telling them why I'd be a great Brand Angel and, to my surprise, they apparently agreed and accepted me.

They were great about generating excitement and buy-in. There was a lead "Brand Manager" who was excellent about keeping everyone informed every step of the way: applications were coming in in droves, they were reviewing the applications, they were getting ready to announce the lucky "Brand Angels"--the whole thing was very exciting and I was all fired up to start blasting the blogosphere, Twittersphere and everything in between with tales of cloud computing. And it wasn't just me--the other 100 Brand Angels were also super excited about being chosen and couldn't wait to get started evangelizing their new "green" computer. This was in mid-July; we were told the computers were due to ship "in a few weeks."

The Brand Manger set up a group on Ning and the atmosphere there was akin to a locker room before the Superbowl--people were PSYCHED and eager as hell to get their hands on their computers and start spreading the word (and their product codes; we were to had made $10 for each sale we referred). People set up really upscale, professional blogs, complete with links to the company's website, resources about cloud computing, etc. It really seemed like a brilliant concept: get this pack of smart, well-connected people to spread the word about their product--for free. It was great for them and also great for us as bloggers--not only is it rare to reap any kind of tangible reward for blogging (e.g. free computer) but it also held the promise of tons of new traffic and connections.

So they hand-picked a bunch of buzz-experts, set up a social network for them so they could easily communicate with each other....then vanished. Well, didn't exactly vanish at first--the Brand Manager continued to provide frequent updates about the product--there had been some kind of glitch resulting in a delay in shipping, but no worries--we'd have the computers by the middle of August. Ok, actually, the end of August. End of August came and went and not only no computer but suddenly no Brand Manager either--she went from being in close touch with all of us to--poof!--gone and never to be heard from again. We were all hanging out on Ning, waiting for the next crumb of information to be fed to us, and there was nothing.

And I mean nothing--I'm talking crickets chirping. Nobody wanted to complain and come off as ungrateful because we all wanted our cool, free cloud computers. Inevitably the discussions started popping up, though: "Anyone heard anything from [company name omitted because I don't want to get sued or knifed in an alley]?" First it was like a bunch of polite school kids "Oh, I'm sure they're going to tell us something soon" and "I'm just excited to get mine!" Discussions about how we intended to spread the buzz--what we were going to write about, what social networking tools we were going to be using, how we were going to try to generate as many sales as possible so we'd all end up rich. All the while, absolutely no word from anyone at the company--the Brand Manager had never been heard from again and there had never been any kind of announcement about her leaving, anyone taking her place--nothing.

September came and went. At some point a very formal-sounding rep from the company logged on and posted on the discussion forum that there had been some delays but that they'd been cleared up and that the computers were going to ship soon. No actual date but soon. People started asking questions and she posted what sounded like a press release from the CEO, informing us that there had been delays...blah, blah, blah...totally different attitude and communication style than we'd been started off with. Then, of course, the silence again.

Mid-October we got an email from the company "Urgent [company]Brand Angel Update"--turns out that their major source of funding had pulled out and left them high and dry but that they had found a new investor and NOW they were PROMISING that the computers would ship on November 4. Oh, and by the way, if we knew anyone interested in investing, by all means have them contact the CEO.

We were like kids starved for affection and attention--just this one email seemed to renew everyone's excitement and enthusiasm--once again the boards were buzzing with positive comments. A little apprehension as November 4 approached with no further updates, but since they had PROMISED--actually "guaranteed" was the word they used--that the computers would be shipping on November 4, no ifs, ands or buts.

Shocker--November 4 came and went and not only no computers but no word whatsoever from the company. People have repeatedly posted comments on the discussion boards "Can anyone give us an update?" and even called, emailed and written the company--all to no avail. I was wondering how long it was going to take until the group turned from warm and fuzzy to cold and prickly--and finally it's happened. The past few days there had been several "What's going on?" posts, all with a decidedly negative tone--then someone came out with what I'd been thinking about all along: essentially, the company had taken great care to pick us for our ability to spread buzz--now they are basically leaving us no other option other than to start the buzz...about a company with deplorable customer relations, a problem-ridden product, and in search of investors. After all, who would want to buy a cloud computer and have all their information and files "processed and stored on the web in a highly secure environment"--hosted, of course, by this here today/gone tomorrow company?

Like I said, I'm not going to name any names now, but I can assure you that it's only a matter of time until the word starts leaking out about a company claiming to be all about fairness and community offering this cutting-edge eco-wonder of a computer, then leaving its "Angels" high and dry. If this is how they treat and communicate with the people who are essentially their advertisers and sales reps, how are they going to treat customers?

Moral of the story: Social networks are not something to be taken lightly. The social media world is just like the real world--people form real relationships, have real clout with investors and customers, and have bought into the idea of community and open communication. If you're a company thinking about using social media to generate buzz about your product or service, rest assured that it will work. Just make sure you're prepared to follow through and keep up your end of the bargain. I'm not talking jump through hoops and constantly coddle your evangelists; I'm talking about simple courtesy--returning emails, maintaining a presence on your social networks, making it known that you recognize and appreciate their following.

A group of loyal followers can just as easily become a swarm of angry individuals bent on spreading the word about their discontent with your company or product.