The marketing world went into panic mode, when disgruntled traveller Hasan Syed, turned the power of self-serve advertising against British Airways when they reportedly misplaced his dads luggage.
What happened next has caused social marketers to think twice about how they protect their brands reputation online.
When BA failed to immediately respond to his complaint, Syed (otherwise known as @HVSVN) not only took his rant to the 'Twittersphere', but also used the social networks paid advertising platform to amplify the reach of his posts. Syed paid to display his tweets in both New York City and the UK, the one-man campaign attracting global media attention.
Part of the irony of the story is that these types of promoted tweets had previously been the preserve of multi-national brands, used to gain visibility for their products and promotions; including by British Airways, who themselves pay Twitter for both promoted posts and a promoted account.
But the big question is "could other disgruntled customers do the same?" and should social marketers be re-writing their crisis management handbooks.
In short, the answer is YES but not in the way Syed attempted to do so, and here's why:
1.) Attack-ads don't win you sympathy
However valid Syed's complaint is, we've probably all had similar experiences. What he did, was to go beyond the rational, targeting complete strangers and launching an 'attack-ad' – the sort of thing we'd expect from our politicians – and we know how bored the public get of them!
Two weeks on and Syed remains an egotistical but largely irrelevant Twitter user with only around 1,800 followers and low levels of engagement. Despite the media hysteria his campaign had little lasting impact on his own social influence.
2.) Break the rules at your peril because you cannot hide behind anonymity
Such attack ads are likely to breach Twitter's lengthy guidelines on advertising standards, risking the user getting banned. Given that accounts paying for advertising need payment methods set up, it's not a process where the complainant could hide behind a 'fake' profile and post or 'troll' anonymously.
3.) By invitation only
Syed claims that he spent approximately $1,000 to promote tweets, which was probably more than the flights cost him, and in itself is beyond the reach of most individuals.
It's also not certain, but highly likely that his account was set up in the US, which has different rules on paid-Twitter advertising to the UK where the service is still by invitation only! UK advertisers also have to commit to a £15,000 minimum spend over 3 months, pre-paid and loaded onto their account – which doesn't make for easy 'in the moment' complainvertising.
...where the headaches really start
Where Syed has spotted a weakness, is that many brands use Twitter as a customer service channel, often unhappy customers looking for answers.
Standard social media practice is to get the unhappy customer to 'follow' the brand account so as to enable them to send direct private messages (DM) out of the view of the public.
The result is that a percentage of the individuals following a brand are likely to have had a poor experience and so increase the risk of accounts becoming 'hubs of negative sentiment'.
Strangely, therein lays the real fuel for 'complainvertising' via Twitter – its lack of detailed advertising targeting. Unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, which gather huge amounts of your personal data, advertisers on Twitter have to target their ads at the followers of other profiles. And that means promoted advertising at your own followers is likely to be served to a percentage of people with a direct negative experience of your brand.
BUT, Twitter shouldn't be the real cause for concern.
The real headache for brands is likely not to come from Twitter and global campaigns but from more targeted and personal peer-to-peer referrals using tools such as Facebook's 'promoted posts'. 'Promoted posts' allow users on Facebook to not only promote messages to their friends, but also to friends of their friends – which unlike Syed's campaign, this is more targeted and likely to influence brand sentiment.
Where does this story end...
Well, the story of the disgruntled traveller made for some great press and a few eyes will have been opened to a new potential risk. But apart from that was very little new or innovative about what Hasan did – private individuals have been promoting stories on Adwords and Facebook for years.
Is complainvertising set to be a new crisis trend for brands? It could be; but not likely in the way attempted by Syed. Rather the real danger comes from customers using smaller paid-media campaigns to promote their negative experiences to their own personal social network where they have real influence and the ability to amplify their message quickly, cheaply and with far greater impact.