Nov.04Bell Media / Dark Helmet takes a beating

When things are going well for a brand on social media, the benefits are easy to measure: an uptick in sales, boom in referral traffic, increased activity on traceable links. When things are going poorly, the silence can be deafening… and difficult to track. Especially if your brand is already suffering.

No sector on social media provides more crisis containment examples than the embattled industry of telecommunications: telecomm companies are under constant attack online.

Bell Media / Dark Helmet takes a beating

For many, social media accounts are the new customer service 1-800 number. Why wait on hold for 10 minutes over the phone, when you can vent instantly online? Angry users hone in on social media channels to air their grievances and gain solidarity — in the form of toxic shares, comments, likes, and retweets — from people who agree with them.

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Ray Wood’s rant is one of five negative posts on Bell’s seemingly harmless hockey announcement. The steady downpour of complaints means telecomm social media managers end up taking on the role of customer service reps. We used Crowdbabble‘s social media measuring tools to view trends in user comments and Bell responses over time:

Bell's response time to customer complaints

The ratio of comments from users and responses from Bell Canada shows that most comments are customer service gripes that need a response (the comments on the company’s Facebook page confirms this). Looking at the graph above, you can see that fan posts that do not require a response from Bell are few and far between.

Within the telecomm sector, only Comcast rivals Bell Canada for negative engagement; both brands are in a constant state of crisis online. But Bell Canada was the brand that got caught writing fake reviews for its new mobility app, MyBell Mobile.

Getting caught = bad reception

On November 24, 2014, Unmarketing tech blogger Scott Stratten noticed something strange: a slew of eerily positive reviews on the new Bell Mobility app. The reviews — most of them 5 star — used language that only an industry insider would know. Worse, the reviews were automatically signed by each reviewer; a quick LinkedIn search showed that the reviewers all worked at Bell. Stratten’s intrepid reporting unearthed what turned out to be a completely illegal, but corporately sanctioned, practice at Bell called astroturfing: employees masquerading as authentic users.

The app’s reviews were obviously fake and the legions of Bell-hating customers who read Stratten’s expose, “For whom the Bell mobility tolls,” were only too happy to share it.

Did you know that in Canada it’s illegal for employees to write reviews of their products, posing as real customers? Bell either didn’t know, or decided it was a chance the brand would have to take in order to make MyBell Mobile a success. A year after Stratten broke the story, the Canadian Competition Bureau fined Bell $1.25 million for its clownish incompetence.

Users scrambled to share bad news about a brand that, many felt, deserved to be publicly shamed. We used Crowdbabble’s engagement measuring tools to look at how “For whom the Bell Mobility tolls” was shared across social platforms. CBC picked up the story.

Did the misdemeanour make Bell look bad? Yes. But when your brand is already inundated with angry comments, one more mistake might not matter as much as you’d think on social media.

Needle in a haystack of outrage

In Bell’s everyday deluge of customer criticism on social media, the fake reviews didn’t register. Complaints referring to the scandal were lost in the sea of misery that runs on top of all of Bell’s social accounts. As seen below, engagement numbers for Bell Canada on Facebook were consistent before and after Stratten broke the story:

Bell engagement two months before after scandal

Posts by Bell Canada are the blue line, and response to posts (likes, comments, and shares) are the bars (graph built using the Facebook engagement measuring tool). Aside from one popular post on November 4, 2014, engagement per Facebook post has hovered close to 0. On Twitter, where Stratten initially shared the story, its impact was similarly minimal: the week the scandal broke was quiet. With Crowdbabble’s engagement over time tool, you can see that average engagement is low for such a large brand.

Engagement over time Twitter for Bell

The revelation that Bell faked reviews on its app did not break the brand’s pattern of low engagement with a few popular posts interspersed.

A lesson in throwing up your hands and doing nothing

Even before Stratten’s post, Bell employed a more passive social strategy of quitting while it was behind. When customer outrage is the dominant theme, sometimes just phoning it in is the safest and most productive social strategy. Twitter handle @Bell_Mobility was shut down in May 2014, before the crisis, and users with complaints about mobile rerouted themselves to @Bell and @Bell_Support.

On its other Twitter accounts and on Facebook, Bell Canada did not need a social media crisis strategy for the fake reviews: it’s failure to contain users ranting about other issues successfully drowned out the delict. On most days, the best Bell can hope for is no comments and a handful of shares. Bell didn’t bother with an apology or any messaging related to the scandal on its social media channels; doing so would have only given users more content to hijack with their outrage.

Angry commenters hijack a Bell post about Halloween

The impact of the fake reviews and fine? There was no impact. Customers continued to use Bell’s social media channels as they always had: to relentlessly dial in their complaints. Dog piling on the brand stayed consistent across its platforms as it did before Stratten’s investigated Bell Mobility’s reviews. The conversation around the brand on its channels has remained negative, and the social media fail was just one more thing for customers to complain about — on and off Bell’s accounts.