Finally a Use for the Internet: Complaining With Effect

Social media is attracting more and more older people. Social media is great for complaining. … Coincidence? I kid. But really, a phenomenon is afoot. A recent survey conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that social media use among those 50 and older zoomed from 22 percent in 2009 to 42 percent by 2010. That study found that Internet users aged 50-64 almost doubled their use of social media to 47 percent (with one in five saying they check social networks daily, also up 100 percent). Social network use among those 65+ doubled to 26 percent (with those checking in daily more than tripling to 13 percent). Meanwhile those 18-29 (a.k.a. the youngsters) are slowing down (if only because they’re already such heavy users). Social networking among that group went from 76 percent in April 2009 to 86 percent in May 2010. A separate Pew study (they’re very inquisitive people) found that Americans ages 70-75 who were online increased from 26 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2009. [Update: The average age of a Facebook user is 38 years old, according to statistics compiled by Flowtown and publicized by Pamorama, http://bit.ly/9FDtvQ. For a company that started exclusively with college students, more than 60 percent of its users are now older than 38. The average Twitter user is 39, with 64 percent being 35 or older.] Back in the day, with dates designated as b.c. (before computers), people would complain by writing a letter. Then as civilization progressed, they would make a phone call – and talk to a real person. In their own country. Eventually, however, the computer age made it possible to be ignored in a whole new way: email. Companies might be wistful for those days. Facebook and Twitter in particular have empowered consumers and voters to view their opinions very quickly and often with great effect. Stories abound of people impotently complaining in (increasingly) old fashioned ways – and then getting a corporate response within minutes after using Twitter or YouTube instead. United Airlines mangled Dave Carroll’s guitar and then relegated him in customer service purgatory. So he created a music video that attracted nine million viewers on the Internet. And then he quickly got relief from UA. [Update: The wax of social networks and wane of email will likely continue, and thus have consequences for marketing and customer service. The same statistics compiled by Flowdown cited above indicate that those age 18-29 use social media as much as email to communicate – and those under 18 prefer social networks over email.] Customer service, long seen as a “cost center” drag on earnings, is rapidly getting more attention in the social media age. It’s been a long time coming, as complainers’ true numbers and depth of sentiment are perpetually under-represented; only a small percentage of dissatisfied customers actually make the effort to complain formally. Not surprisingly, customer service hasn’t been seen as an easy target of cutbacks in times of austerity (or greed). Furthermore, businesses, ever promiscuous, have favored wooing new customers (sales and marketing) over romancing existing ones (customer service). That imbalance will likely change. “Until now, most customer service has been in a black hole of obscurity,” Pete Blackshaw of Nielsen Online Strategic Services recently told Time magazine. “Now you just spend a few minutes searching tweets to see who’s mad and then how they were dealt with.” He wrote a book whose title pretty much sums up the new reality: Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. Conclusion: because all age groups are increasingly using social media to communicate, these networks are also the future of both marketing and customer service.
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