Six months after the infamous British Gas Twitter Q&A session, where the company invited participation through an open-ended hashtag on the same day as a near 10% price hike in energy bills affecting about 8 million UK households, what does it demonstrate about the power of social media?

Some 16,000 tweets were sent during the 1 hour session, many of them caustic, peaking at around 160 a minute. Many called it a ‘fiasco’ and a ‘PR disaster’, but it could also be viewed as a bold attempt to engage with an angry customer base in a transparent way.

Similarly, The New York Police department asked the public to use twitter to show pictures of themselves with members of the NYPD. Within hours the hashtag, and the campaign, had been hijacked with thousands of people using the hashtag to publish images of officers in not quite the benign situations the campaign had hoped.

NYPD

Here’s some lessons learned from the #AskBG campaign:

1. Context is key
Is it a good idea to open up like this on the same day your customers are likely to be fuming with anger? Received wisdom would say not – when looking at what happened when JP Morgan attempted a Twitter Q&A during a reputational crisis it is clear that context is one of the most important considerations. But although it might have been better to leave the Q&A for a week or so to let the dust settle, British Gas and their competitors have rarely been out of the news recently due to the cost of living crisis, so could they have expected a better response at any other time? Maybe not. Plus, the #AskBG story took some of the heat instead of the price rise!

2. The audience is there
Despite the volume of negative responses, British Gas can at least take away the knowledge that there are large numbers of people out there willing and ready to engage with them over social media. Twitter is obviously a useful channel for them to reach their customer base in the future. Any brand with large numbers of followers over a social platform can expect similar levels of engagement.

3. Joined-up thinking
When mounting a campaign such as this it’s vital that all departments are aware of it. It seems British Gas held the Q&A on the same day as the price rise intentionally, but other brands will naturally prefer to steer clear of such clashes and prevent news from derailing their social efforts, or vice versa. This may be particularly relevant to financial services firms releasing details of company performance or compensation packages which can be sensitive.

4. Crisis-Management Plans
The company pressed on with the Q&A despite the response, showing that they had expected the deluge and were prepared for it. Social media disasters are a regular occurrence and provide a lot of entertainment at times, so any brand engaging in this way must have a crisis-management plan in place before starting. Some tips? The campaign must be monitored from start to finish; there should be a point-person authorised to send official responses where necessary; if things go wrong then any automated marketing may have to be deactivated, and the company must reply to as many messages as it can, especially the negative ones, to emphasise a dedication to customer service. When McDonalds ran a similar campaign to this, their McDStories hashtag was also flooded with abuse, some good-natured and some vitriolic. It was pulled almost immediately, indicating the brand had a well-rehearsed contingency plan in place.

5. Engagement must work both ways
If we assume the timing was intentional then probably the biggest flaw in the #AskBG campaign was that in inviting questions which would inevitably concern the price rises, the company was unable to actually do much to help those affected. Companies seeking feedback must be seen to act upon it. In this instance British Gas pointed out that the price hikes needn’t necessarily result in higher bills if people considered energy-saving measures, but this message was never going to find much traction amongst the understandable outrage.

Find the good news

Even when the response is overwhelmingly negative, brands should always be proactively monitoring their social footprint, analysing the massive streams of data for those single atomic points of interest. Being proactive will lead to those genuine questions and real-time insight that acted upon. By latching on to these mentions and replying publicly, it ensures people know the company is listening and ready to help where it can.

Is there a different approach?

Could the hashtag have been less open-ended to make the responses manageable? Perhaps. One good suggestion was that British Gas could have invited relevant questions to be submitted to their Customer Services Director at a later date, and then broadcast that interview over YouTube. There are many ways to engage stakeholders over social media that don’t risk the brand’s image as publicly.

British Gas put a brave face on the situation –

“We know people are worried about rising energy prices and they want to talk about this – including on Twitter – and it’s important we’re there for them to talk to. That’s why we offered a Q&A session with our customer services director. It was the right thing to do because we are committed to being open and transparent with our customers at all times.”

They showed they were aiming for authenticity, and were willing to listen to and understand their customers’ concerns, which is a lot more than many brands are prepared to do.

Ultimately this kind of event can make a lot of companies wary of engaging through social media, but in fact it should do the opposite – #AskBG illuminates the importance of brands being open and embracing real-time communication with customers. It certainly hasn’t put British Gas off – at the time of writing they are on Twitter offering to donate to Shelter whenever someone fills in a short survey.

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