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: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/pretty-in-print-20121025-286j5.html).
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’ (http://blog.blackmilkclothing.com/toomanytights/2011/11/going-down-in-a-blaze-of-nylon.html). 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.
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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.
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