Are Brands using Social Media to Spy?

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More importantly, should brands be monitoring conversations about them and then respond without explicit permission from the online complainer?

One of the written rules of the Internet is Do Not Feed the Troll, a troll being a user that is deliberately provocative. Personally I think that the Mail is the largest troll* that exists and it has been suggested that it, along with other papers, is starting to deliberately provoke Twitter storms. The reason why is pretty obvious I think, it increases their traffic and provides them with a reason to up advertising rates while having a very limited impact on how their core readership views them. The people who get up in arms about the Daily Mail on Twitter are highly unlikely to ever buy the paper, and those that buy the paper are highly unlikely to get up in arms about what it says.

Bearing all this in mind, I probably shouldn’t be writing a post about it’s latest trollish article about how brands are using the internet to ‘spy’ on their customers. The only reason I do is because it hits on several pet topics of mine, mainly privacy and the general hypocrisy of people; it’s also a subject I touched on way back in 2008. The impetus then was a question from the 2008 intake of Porter Novelli graduates who asked if anyone had got upset at a company responding to a general online whinge. At the time I could only think of an example from the States, in the form of a New York Times article about ComCast. Today’s Mail article has a few more examples, mainly about BT (disclosure Porter Novelli client).

The article starts by saying that ‘Some of Britain’s biggest firms were last night accused of ‘spying’ on their customers after they admitted ‘listening in’ on disgruntled conversations on the internet’. Although at no point in the article does it say who or what has been doing the accusing and on what basis. It does cite the specific example of someone from BT contacting a customer after they had commented on their FaceBook page about poor service. The customer in question described being contacted as ‘Big Brotherish’ and ‘Sinister’. He’s also changing his privacy settings. The article does make clear, via a quote from BT, that it is only monitoring public conversations. So is it the fault of the person who doesn’t realise that they are complaining publicly in what they felt was a private space, or should the onus be on the brand the question make a note of the complaint, not react directly but concentrate on improving its service generally based on it? Or should they take note of the complaint, and ensure that the complainer receives special attention but without ever publicly disclosing why? Personally I feel that approach smacks far more of 1984.

Do consumers have the right to feel disgruntled if the company they are publicly complaining about contacts them to address their issues? Should companies taking this approach start any contact by establishing the person knows what they said was public, and offering the option to tell the brand to poke off? Should companies put a bit more thought in how they should respond to complaints in the wild? Should people be more aware of the difference between public and private online spaces? Should they accept responsibility for the consequences of not knowing the difference?

The answer to all these questions, as ever, is probably, except for the last two, where it is a most definite yes.

*I also suspect that the Mail is actually what the lump of concentred evil left in the world at the end of Time Bandits turned into

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