Monday 10 October 2016

How to lose customers and alienate people

How to lose customers and alienate people
Black Milk’s social media fail will cost them dearly.

Social media fails are often pointed out as salutary lessons; the problem generally lies in working out what the take-out for any brand is, apart from the injunction: Don’t fail!

It is easy to indulge in schadenfreude – that is, delighting in the misfortune of others. It is far more useful, and enlightening, to examine the processes involved.

So let’s look at Black Milk, the Australian online clothing phenomenon you have never heard of unless you are on PayPal or a geek girl who simply cannot have too many pairs of Star War tights. They’re a classic example of a niche brand that operates in a highly distributed market world-wide. Though they claim “zero advertising budget”, they staff a round-the-clock Facebook presence. Serendipitously, they stumbled into creating products for digitally savvy, well-heeled women who effectively organised themselves around the brand and created over 80 private Facebook sites to support it (hyperlink:   

Like Zara, they limit regular editions hence, as the items are released, they sell out. As a result, in the early days the servers crashed regularly; Black Milk likened this to being attacked by sharks and brand loyalists are dubbed ‘sharkies’ ( Like Southwest Airlines, they work with an extremely limited range of patterns; the primary purpose of their clothes is the crisp, colourful display of images loved by geeks globally, often inspired by movies,  and they have wrapped up deals with Lucas, Warner Bros and Disney.  They sell at a high premium with a low input cost.

The brand loyalty is so immense, some have likened it to a cult and it has even, tongue-in-cheek, published Ten Commandments governing Facebook interactions, including: “You shall not make critical comments on other women's bodies”.

So, when their official Facebook page embarked upon this meme of: expectation / failure on the 4th of May, Star Wars Day  the backlash was immediate and immense.

Most importantly, the thoughtful questioning came from that vocal minority: brand advocates and influencers, whose relationship to the silent majority could be seen by the thousands of likes the company soon lost; lurkers are still engaged and responsive.  

The social media person in charge of the FB page at the time compounded the initial error by engaging in  egregious behaviour such that, as one sharkie noted: "It was a delete and block party and not a civil discussion as some people intended it to be".

But what were they discussing? From the responses by Black Milk the sub-text clearly was: “Can’t you sharkies take a joke?” to which the resounding answer was – “It’s not a joke to us”.

There are a number of levels you can analyse this. The first is that of disrespecting the community, and not being able to manage any kind of reasonable interaction. So, while amongst the screen-grabbed shots  (the company itself took down the post, but thanks to the Streisand effect it will live in perpetuity on the interwebs) you find such gems as "the community means so much to me".

But, more importantly, fans said "the post in and of itself destroyed the positive environment they have come to expect" from the brand itself. That is, this is not simply a social media fail, but a failure of strategy, of understanding the brand message and ensuring that this very simple message pulls through in all brand messaging.

The sharkies themselves had previously put up a meme, based on the selfies with sharkie clothing the company encourages them to share, which simply stated:  “All women are real. All sharkies are beautiful”.

Or as one sharkie put it, “The clothes to me have always been a symbol of community and confidence and body positivity and rocking a ninja catsuit out to the valley even when I'm not 'skinny'".

A telling response from a clearly immature social media team was: "All that we want to do is create beautiful clothes, not deal with internet raging". But this wasn’t simple internet raging and the people being targeted were not trolls. Black Milk’s success lies in its branding, which message is taken to its customers through its brand advocates on social media.

This isn’t a case of over-sensitive women spoiling a lovely party, nor simply that of a tone-deaf social media team, this was a problem of truly and magnificently utterly undermining your very simple brand message.

Their social media representative then committed the cardinal sin of advocating that they “"move on and interact and shop elsewhere", or "stop shopping with us. We'll understand." Furthermore, they went on to say, Black Milk "made the decision that was best for the business." Um, no. As one social media analyst pointed out, those raising concerns “aren't just names and pictures on a screen, they're people, and they're people that Black Milk owes a large part of its success to".

That is, don’t alienate your customer. They are the ones paying for your brand.

These advocates had co-created a positive environment made up of people who felt they were secure (in their body, whatever type or shape it is), that they belonged to a community and that their voices mattered (a large part of the success lies in editions requested by sharkies). The introduction of the concept of failure with regard to wearing the clothes and the subsequent shutting down of any opinion led to deep feelings of ostracism and pain, which in turn, hurt the brand.

What is interesting is that a commentator called Sam, whose credentials are unknown and cannot be verified, said that “Knowing the person who was responsible for the handling of this, I can accurately report that she is inexperienced, has poor people skills, and is a bully. This personality reflects badly on BM and their hiring of her was a complete failcomplete fail.”

Customer acquisition is more expensive than retention. If you are going to rely on social media for your messaging, then maybe whoever is the messenger must, at the very least, understand your brand and have some competency with regard to dealing with valid criticism.

But the largest failure was that of brand. Quite simply, the meme posted was utterly dissonant with their brand message, which was to “shut down body shaming” and, given their success is predicated upon a small but extremely loyal core of repeat customers, alienating them is extremely bad for business, especially if you are as reliant on them to carry forth your brand message. All the talk by Cameron Parker of Black Milk about customers being a “walking billboard is cheap if the subtext is - only a very few (thin, gorgeous, amazing, non-geeky looking women) can carry off being that billboard.

A slighter shorter version of this article was first published on page 17 of the Saturday Star on the 6 September 2014, and has been republished with persmission.

Kathryn Kure
Data Myna
Tel: +27 (0)31 7645094
Mobile: +27(0)83 252 0992

About Kathryn Kure:

Classically trained at the HSRC in human sciences research and analysis, Kathryn loves to provide practical solutions to real-world problems, particularly if these are at the intersection of  technology, people and marketing. She particularly enjoys analysing what factors hinder or facilitate people in decision-making processes, and what practical implications these has for marketers.  

As an applied researcher who loves bleeding-edge technologies, she has often touted new technologies (and was, for instance, one of the first to use GIS for marketing analyses) and has worked both in marketing research and as a marketer in business innovation. Most recently, she translated her findings on SEO from analysing her blogs using Profile Analytics into success in social media and has over 52 000 followers on Google Plus and over 3.8 views.  

About Data Myna:

Over and above the obvious riff on 'data mining',  the Indian Myna is highly articulate, curious, adaptable, innovative and successfully out-competes other birds in its niche, which Data Myna argues is precisely what you want from your marketing intelligence.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

The Dark Side of Data

When business unusual is the norm, there is no place for complacency

There is no place to hide anymore. Companies, countries and governments are increasingly challenged by open, accessible data and maps.  

Entertainers have always made for compelling viewing, but who would have thought an 89 minute long, academic YouTube video entitled Sugar: The Bitter Truth by a Professor of Endocrinology would be viewed over 6 million times?

Who could ever have imagined that the pinnacle of German automative engineering, Volkswagen, could be brought to its knees by research undertaken by a small, albeit highly specialist academic centre?

Oppressive regimes in a number of countries never considered blocking satellite imagery from Google Earth until the data-mapping genie, i.e., maptivism (using Google maps in conjunction with crowd-sourced data from social media) was out of a number of bottles. 

But in a world in which Libyan rebels could talk openly of "fighting with Google Earth" and when queried about this say, “Why not?” and their biggest issue is not a dearth of data but so much data that phones became “too hot to touch”, it is evident the issue is not only of lack of data, but of what to do with the data.

Even Baidu, the Chinese search engine giant, has recently used its tracking database of 700 million users to generate a map of China's "ghost cities"map of China’s “ghost cities” which indicate very low numbers of people living in many cities despite a high number of houses - and which low populations are not due to the seasonal variation of tourism, given the length of time over which the data was tracked.

As much as humans are motivated toward entertainment and connectedness, as any parent knows, we also crave answers to the age-old question, “Why?”

We are not simply seeing the rise of citizen scientists (or computer scientists turned rebel leaders), but we are also seeing citizens taking on board the work of scientists and using open-source data, code and mapping to inform and empower themselves and others.

When massively large corporations and governments have an interest in maintaining the status quo, then only rigorous scientific and analytic work will be able to hold up under intense scrutiny. However, when the data does hold, and tells a compelling story – then all bets are off in terms of ‘business as usual’.

Mexico introduced a soda tax in large part driven by a successful campaign that told how the minimum amount of sugar in a particular size of soda was 12 teaspoons. Yes, the tax has since been halved – but only for servings with less than 5 teaspoons of sugar. 

Since 2006, Google Earth meant that the densely populated Shi’a majority was able directly to compare and contrast their living space against the palaces and islands owned by the al-Khalifas, the Sunni-minority ruling family, which data was cited as fueling the 2011 Bahraini uprising. 

The striking and appalling images of concentrated animal feedlot operations, and the toxic-looking sludge of cattle feedlot manure lagoons or cesspools, taken from publicly available satellite imagery, have been stitched into compelling images by one artist and fed into an increasing debate as to how the food system works – or doesn’t. 

Although strict “ag-gag” laws are in place, the location and imagery of feedlots have been popped into a readily accessible map layer.

Want to track the state of the world’s forests? Why, there is a map and data layer for that: Global Forest Watch, developed through key partnerships.No longer will the Forest Stewardship Council  need physically to visit the Karelia Forest before suspending IKEA’s certification as they did in 2014, through ascertaining that Swedwood had been harvesting old-growth trees in the protected regions of the Russian forest. 

Now, forests can be tracked in near real time via satellite and compared and contrasted to well-validated base data.  

If there is one thing that Dr Google has taught medical doctors, it is that humans have innate desires for mastery, and knowledge and will seek understanding; as all these new digital tools are unlocked, and knowledge sharing becomes easier, so there are fewer and fewer places to hide.

It’s hard, and becoming harder, in an increasingly networked, interconnected and data-driven world to invoke the concept of plausible deniability when any misdeeds will be in plain sight, and easily searched by hashtags such as #Exxonknew.

Whether a business is unwittingly duped or actively engaged in nefarious activities (what precisely did Exxon know, and when?), or simply not willing to engage in trying to answer complex questions, you are faced with an ever-dwindling capacity to disclaim direct knowledge or accompanying responsibility. 

After all, if all you need do to prove that a large proportion of drivers are not adhering to the speed limit in your street is to download some code from code from Github and use this in conjunction with video taken from a high vantage point with your cellphone (and this is but one of many such shared resources), then no business can afford to be complacent.

On top of this, whistleblowers have the ability to skirt surveillance and censorship through Tor, the promise of readily accessible balloon-powered internet, and easy-to-use encryption software.

So while many punt the rewards associated with data-driven approaches, the reality is that risk-aversion is equally compelling. And the question always is: who else is doing what with the data?

After all, Microsoft was the first to create a massive geographical database that preceded Google Earth, but only considered it as a means to the end of testing SQL server on a massively large dataset; Google in turn understood the value of information but did not get ‘social’ while Facebook did.

Any investment in the time, energy and funding is positively cheap when compared with the risk of losing your entire business or profit line. It’s easy to talk disruption, but hard to be disrupted. When business unusual is the norm, there is no room for complacency. 

Companies addicted to high profits at the expense of people or the environment need to understand there is hardly any place to hide anymore. As any addict knows, admitting the addiction is the first step in recovery; for companies, admitting the reality of their data-sets is the first step to finding new paths to profit. 

This article was first published in the Saturday Star Marketing and Media pages on the 28th November 2015 and republished here with permission

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