Charlie Mitchell: Even for luddites, social media is changing the world

April 23, 2013 10:11:44 AM



OXFORD -- Once upon a time, Buster and Myrtle could make a decent living from their roadside cafĂ©. They could reel a steady flow of travelers in from the highway for a bowl of soup (complete with cigarette ashes floating on top) using only a billboard. 


Buster and Myrtle weren't interested in repeat customers. Their arrangement worked because all the information the travelers could get was from that billboard. 


That's not true anymore. 


Even inexpensive cars these days have "nav" systems that, at least when they work, offer travelers an array of dining (and other) choices and voice guidance right into parking lots. Smartphones duplicate or complement this process, adding reviews and comments by previous patrons. (Any mention of cigarette ashes would likely be a negative; meaning Buster and Myrtle's soup sales would slide.) 


What this means is that even for people who shun technology -- don't use "nav" or any of the dozens of consumer information "apps" -- commerce has changed. Such luddites might not get advance warnings about near-toxic lunch specials, but enough people will so that the Buster and Myrtles of the world won't be able to stay open. 


The opposite side of that coin, quite obviously, is that a better burger (or soup sans ashes) will boost business. 


The net effect? Over time, the chances of having a bad consumer experience should fall and the chances of having a good consumer experience should rise. 


Taken together, the driving force behind this is collectively called "social media." 


People are talking to each other constantly, which is not new, but their conversations increasingly become "posts" to websites that are open instantly and around the clock to anyone with an Internet connection. 


Now quite naturally, it didn't take the marketing-minded long to figure out how to game this system. Posts are usually anonymous (by sally249 or 1grtguy), so the operators of restaurants, inns, attractions and even other firms such as sellers of clothes or practitioners of remodeling or appliance repair, could write their own. 


Many do. "Best burger on the planet!" "High quality, low prices, super service!" 


In a way, the words are not so different from the puffery Buster and Myrtle put on their billboard. 


Of course, this anonymity thing can be and has been a double-edged sword. Competitors can also post: "Overpriced." "Smelled like a pig pen." 


And, to complete the loop, consumers have become self-educated, too. Most use something akin to Olympic scoring, knocking out ebullient praise as well as unmitigated scorn and settling on sort of a better-than-average or worse-than-average in interpretation of comments, taken as whole. 


Notably, a whole new industry has sprung up around this. Its name is "reputation management," which sounds a little sneaky -- but it isn't really. 


Reputation managers perform many services, most of them subtle and nuanced. The best ones know how to react in proportion to the threat. If a consumer complains that a pair of jeans was overpriced, that results in one level of response. If a consumer complains there were bed bugs at the bed and breakfast, that triggers something akin to Defcon 4. 


Another aspect is the timing. Not too long ago, a merchant had days or weeks to try make to an unhappy customer happy again. A professional reputation manager in Memphis promises a 15-minute response to threats to his clients' reputation. 


That's almost less time than it takes for a bowl of Buster and Myrtle's nasty soup to cool down to eating temperature. 


Anyway, as more and more revolutions (some in the Arab world fitting the literal definition) have come about via the Internet and social media, the purpose here is a pause to point out another, more subtle shift. 


Sellers of goods and services now have the choice of maintaining or improving their operations or they are sure to face immediate retribution in the form of slings and arrows on the Internet. 


That's a good thing for commerce, generally, and for consumers. Social media makes active users of the technology smarter shoppers, and, because sellers have to do better to attract and keep customers, the benefits also flow to those whose last technology upgrade was from a house phone with a dial to one with buttons.