What a hangover

Some significant events from the year just gone will continue to resonate with online managers and should inform their future strategies, David Bowen says.

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Rather than providing yet another ‘trends for 2011’ piece, I thought it would be interesting to pick out the events from last year that are likely to have a continuing effect on the development of online communications. I’ve added some thoughts that I hope help make sense of them.

The BP oil leak

Every large company must have studied BP’s reaction to the crisis that followed the drilling accident in the Gulf of Mexico in April. If they want some (mostly) positive lessons, they should look at the way the company used its website which, during the summer, was one of the most visited sites in the world.
p((. BP moved fast, with its home page switched to coverage of the incident within hours and dedicated entirely to it within a week. This was practical and also transmitted the message that the company understood just how overpowering the issue was.
p((. It used its home page as a hub – a set of signposts for people needing to find out more. Apart from Google, bp.com was the obvious place to look.
p((. It backed this up by buying Google keywords for phrases such as ‘oil leak’. It was criticised at first for being slow – in fact, it had bought keywords quickly but only for some national versions of Google. I’ve seen an estimate that it spent $1 million on keywords – good value, surely.
p((. It poured information onto the site. The webcams from the bottom of the sea were most striking, but the real strength lay in the mass of material for locals – a claim form in Vietnamese illustrated the level of detail.
p((. It was criticised for asking for suggestions on what to do – which made it sound helpless – but at least it was prepared to swallow its pride in the hope that something useful might emerge.
p((. It used several Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels, though always in support of the site. A valid criticism is that BP headquarters did not have its own Twitter feed – only BP America did – so it had no ready-made pool of followers it could tap to spread its response.
p((. It was unable to use the ‘dark site’ it has in readiness for crises as effectively as it had before (for example, after the Texas City explosion in 2005) – this became a ‘joint information’ site instead. But it did use the site to receive and respond to a vast number of comments and enquiries.
*Every company should have an online response plan.
*Make sure you have a Twitter feed that is well followed, especially by journalists.

Nestlé’s rumble with Greenpeace on Facebook

In March Greenpeace launched a YouTube video attacking Nestlé’s use of palm oil from forests where orang-utans lived. Nestlé put up a quick response on its site, but stumbled when it came to social media:
p((. The first and biggest mistake was by the company’s UK lawyers, who asked YouTube to suppress the video because it infringed copyright. This enraged Greenpeace’s supporters and ensured that the video – which inevitably reappeared all over the place – received vastly more publicity.
p((. The second was after the battle had switched to the group’s Facebook page. Nestlé is most unusual in using Facebook for corporate communications, but must now wish it didn’t. The administrator got into a gentle argument with a ‘fan’ which went nuclear as critics swamped the Nestlé site with howls of ‘How dare it?’ outrage. Looking back, the company came close to doing the right things, but when it comes to fighting Greenpeace online, a miss is as good as a mile.
*Ensure that rogue elements (in this case lawyers) do not act without consulting the experts at the centre.
*Think very hard indeed before suppressing a YouTube video.
*Do not try to take on Greenpeace on social media – it will win (meanwhile, watch it and learn).

Launch of the iPad

The iPad’s most obvious impact was on the publishing industry. But any organisation that uses the web seriously needed to take notice, as it formed a natural progression from the increasingly important mobile web device (or mobile phone, as it used to be called).
p((. It has given a big boost to the ‘balkanisation’ of online communications: a huge strength of the web – that it was standardised and ran on any computer – is being undermined. iPad can be used to run ‘apps’ that mimic websites – not are websites. KPMG’s app for its document library is a good example. While slick and useful, they add complexity to the online manager’s job.
p((. The refusal of Apple to allow Flash to run on the iPad is more serious than on the iPhone: the larger device is much more likely to be used for web browsing. It seems that the new HTML5 will allow sites to do much the same as Flash, but this is another source of complexity for hard-pressed managers.
p((. More positively, iPads are giving a boost to the ‘second screen’ trend that started with laptops – they are true laptops, perfect for nestling on laps while the TV is on.
*Try to persuade your bosses that you need resources to cope with the extra complexity.
*On ‘second screens’, consider how you may be able to exploit the opportunities. For example, if you know a major channel is running a programme on your industry, could you put a home page link (and buy Google keywords) to channel people to your point of view?

The UK general election

This brought with it the idea of the ‘big society’ – getting ‘the people’ to do things that either the government did or that we had to pay for.
p((. The US has always been better than Europe at ‘big society’, which may be why there is so much unpaid activity going on online. Wikipedia is big society – people doing something for the public good for no financial reward. Indeed, social media as a whole is made up of a vast amount of unpaid activity. Companies already tap into this helpful tendency: Dell’s customers sort out one another’s IT problems, Caterpillar’s bulldozer owners help one another with bulldozing problems.
*I’m not sure there are any particular lessons, but I’m comforted that the Big Society is already alive and well, living in a computer near you.

First published 12 January, 2011
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