Four Lessons From Twitter’s Spam/Customer-Busting Episode

If you’re a Twitter user, you may have noticed a storm in a teacup erupting over the last few days.

On August 1st, Dave Delaney, a friend who I finally met in person at PodCamp Toronto this year, found his Twitter account suspended for no apparent reason.

Account deleted

As it turned out, seven people eight people, including Connie Crosby — another friend of mine — were caught-up in the Twitter crew’s latest attempt to reduce the growing amount of spam on Twitter. Their accounts were suspended with no warning and they were left confused and unable to access their followers, their past messages or any messages that people had sent to them.

To cut a long story short (you can check out Dave’s posts on it here), Dave and the others managed to get their account reinstated but the experience, especially in terms of communication with the Twitter team, left Dave in particular unsure of whether to continue on the service. As he said to me in an email to me earlier today:

“I truly felt abandoned. It makes me question whether I want to trust Twitter with a journal of my thoughts and communication anymore, not to mention the ability to hijack my 1,500+ followers. I have no way to export them, so how can we keep connected should this happen again?”

Connie Crosby had a similar take:

“For the record, I had no communication from Twitter that I was reinstated. No explanation, & especially no apology. Leaves me a little cold.”

I find it amusing but at the same time sad that Twitter, a service used by companies like Comcast, H&R Block and JetBlue for customer service, isn’t using its own service in the same way.

Why do I care about this? Firstly, because Dave (and Connie) is a friend, a genuinely good guy, and passionate about Twitter. Secondly, because companies can learn some lessons from this.

Lessons learned

Here are four lessons that companies can learn from Twitter’s latest customer-service episode:

Prepare for the worst

Mistakes will happen. There’s nothing we can do to stop that.

Surely someone must have considered the possibility that non-spammers would get caught-up in Twitter’s spam-control efforts. Given the number of people using Twitter it’s not surprising that they had a few false positives when doing this kind of work. In fact, I’m surprised it was only eight people. The problem was that they weren’t ready when it did happen.

Companies should prepare for events like this so that if the worst does happen they can catch it before it escalates.

Respond quickly

Twitter’s staff did respond, but it was a day after the initial complaint was posted on GetSatisfaction. The first time Twitter bigwigs Biz Stone, Ev Williams or Jack Dorsey mentioned the episode was around the same time.

At an event in December 2007, I remember Dell’s Richard Binhammer saying “If you don’t respond within 24 hours, forget responding.” Twitter has a status blog for just this purpose; a quick post on there early on may have solved this problem before it escalated.

Respond personally

After blogging and posting frequently about the problem, Dave Delaney received an email from a Twitter rep:

Hello,
I saw the thread on Satisfaction and noticed your @replies regarding your account problems.  My apologies for the confusion; I’m looking into your account issues now, and I’ll be in touch with more information soon.
Thanks,
Crystal

Andy Brudtkuhl — another affected user — received an identical email. Other people commented on the impersonal tone in the response they received. People don’t like being treated impersonally.

When you respond to upset customers, try to personalize your response. Prepared messaging is good, but copied and pasted emails leave a poor impression. At a minimum, try to put a personal touch on it. In this case, even the name of the customer would help.

Your customer service can drive your reputation

Happy customers will tell other people about you. So will unhappy customers. Your customer service can make the difference between people becoming one or the other.

Unfortunately, customer service people are often at the bottom of the corporate heap, isolated from much of the business and hence with little idea what’s going on in the big picture. Do yourself a favour and set your customer service people up to succeed — keep them involved and in the loop. You may find that they can give you some useful insights into what your customers are saying about you.

It’s a PRoblem

Notice a trend? All of the lessons above are PR-related.

A couple of months ago, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said this about Twitter’s PR efforts:

“Twitter is 16 employees made up of systems engineers and operators, product designers, and support specialists. We do not employ public relations professionals.”

I may be a little biased but I think it’s time that, if they haven’t already, Twitter re-evaluates that situation.

16 comments
David Fisher
David Fisher

Thanks for noticing and having this great writeup of what happened. I think the main less is fast response, which I know is difficult. I didn't realize that at the time Twitter was only 16 employees. For some reason I figured that in raising 15M that they'd hired a bit more. I'm glad that they fixed the problems, but it was a disturbing 24 hours. I felt as if my voice on the internet was taken away.

David Fisher
David Fisher

Thanks for noticing and having this great writeup of what happened. I think the main less is fast response, which I know is difficult. I didn't realize that at the time Twitter was only 16 employees. For some reason I figured that in raising 15M that they'd hired a bit more.

I'm glad that they fixed the problems, but it was a disturbing 24 hours. I felt as if my voice on the internet was taken away.

PF Anderson
PF Anderson

Connie is so on target mentioning the impact on the followers. You also have to remember that to get a response we used other social networks, beyond Twitter, and there is a broader public watching. Most important in my mind is the possibility of there being other victims who have not yet discovered the problem, have not realized that it isn't a temporary fluke (which is what I thought for the first several hours) or who don't know how to report it.

As I said on the GetSatistfaction page: "So far most of the people who have found this page are fairly high-end Twitter users, savvy folk who know their way around troubleshooting. I am concerned that there may be effected users who are not so savvy, may not know how to get help, may not realize the scope of the problem, or may not have even thought to check their accounts yet. It would be nice if Twitter looked out for any other as-yet-undiscovered victims of this problem and took a proactive role in communicating with their community, creating a variety of communication paths to the necessary support information."

PF Anderson
PF Anderson

Connie is so on target mentioning the impact on the followers. You also have to remember that to get a response we used other social networks, beyond Twitter, and there is a broader public watching. Most important in my mind is the possibility of there being other victims who have not yet discovered the problem, have not realized that it isn't a temporary fluke (which is what I thought for the first several hours) or who don't know how to report it. As I said on the GetSatistfaction page: "So far most of the people who have found this page are fairly high-end Twitter users, savvy folk who know their way around troubleshooting. I am concerned that there may be effected users who are not so savvy, may not know how to get help, may not realize the scope of the problem, or may not have even thought to check their accounts yet. It would be nice if Twitter looked out for any other as-yet-undiscovered victims of this problem and took a proactive role in communicating with their community, creating a variety of communication paths to the necessary support information."

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

LOL! I wasn't challenging you. I have just been thinking a lot about it since we last talked. I agree if only 8 people are affected it might not be a good move to blog it. But, all 8 of us had 1500+ followers, many of whom expressed concern about the situation. Many of my followers were far more concerned about it than I was, and they needed some comfort from Twitter, too. There was no real way to quietly fix things in this case I think.

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

LOL! I wasn't challenging you. I have just been thinking a lot about it since we last talked. I agree if only 8 people are affected it might not be a good move to blog it. But, all 8 of us had 1500+ followers, many of whom expressed concern about the situation. Many of my followers were far more concerned about it than I was, and they needed some comfort from Twitter, too. There was no real way to quietly fix things in this case I think.

Eden Spodek
Eden Spodek

I'm not defending twitter in their decision about whether or not to blog about the problem but sometimes you have to make a judgement call. If only 8 people were affected that's a tiny percentage of the total number of customers. Addressing the entire customer base may not be the right approach as it may have made a mountain out of a mole hill. We discussed this on our upcoming podcast and you didn't challenge me on that comment. ;-)

Eden Spodek
Eden Spodek

I'm not defending twitter in their decision about whether or not to blog about the problem but sometimes you have to make a judgement call. If only 8 people were affected that's a tiny percentage of the total number of customers. Addressing the entire customer base may not be the right approach as it may have made a mountain out of a mole hill.

We discussed this on our upcoming podcast and you didn't challenge me on that comment. ;-)

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

Why I think the blog should have been used in this case:

On the Twitter blog I was actively participating in their discussion about efforts being taken to clean up spam. They should have mentioned there that they were deleting suspected spam accounts. @biz tweeted that they had made mistake, why not post that in the blog? After all, if I can't get into my account and if I am not following @biz (I didn't know he existed before this!) how would I see this tweet? http://twitter.com/biz/statuses/875773303

Eventually I discovered the discussion in the "Get Satisfaction" forum. Again, I had to hunt for that. The blog would have been a more central place to communicate with those of us with problems.

They keep saying 8 of us had the problem. How do we know there weren't more? I am concerned there are others out there who just gave up, not knowing they were deactivated accidentally. Maybe they have been off-line all weekend?

Finally, I have a lot of followers who expressed concern that they were not seeing enough evidence of Twitter communicating with me. They were concerned not just about me, but about their own accounts and especially about advocating the use of Twitter for others. They could also have benefitted from seeing communication on the blog.

Ultimately, I think it is good Twitter is working to clean out spam accounts. I wish they had sent each of us an email message telling us the accounts had been deleted and why. Then we would have had better recourse from the beginning.

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

Why I think the blog should have been used in this case: On the Twitter blog I was actively participating in their discussion about efforts being taken to clean up spam. They should have mentioned there that they were deleting suspected spam accounts. @biz tweeted that they had made mistake, why not post that in the blog? After all, if I can't get into my account and if I am not following @biz (I didn't know he existed before this!) how would I see this tweet? http://twitter.com/biz/statuses/875773303 Eventually I discovered the discussion in the "Get Satisfaction" forum. Again, I had to hunt for that. The blog would have been a more central place to communicate with those of us with problems. They keep saying 8 of us had the problem. How do we know there weren't more? I am concerned there are others out there who just gave up, not knowing they were deactivated accidentally. Maybe they have been off-line all weekend? Finally, I have a lot of followers who expressed concern that they were not seeing enough evidence of Twitter communicating with me. They were concerned not just about me, but about their own accounts and especially about advocating the use of Twitter for others. They could also have benefitted from seeing communication on the blog. Ultimately, I think it is good Twitter is working to clean out spam accounts. I wish they had sent each of us an email message telling us the accounts had been deleted and why. Then we would have had better recourse from the beginning.

Eden Spodek
Eden Spodek

I'm also friends with Connie Crosby and Dave Delaney. They are two of the last people I'd ever expect to be accused of twitter spamming.

I agree, twitter could have done a better job of communicating with the eight individuals involved. I'm not sure twitter needed to announce the problem on their blog as some people suggested but they could have have done a better job of contacting the eight individuals.

As for the role of a PR professional on the twitter team, I couldn't agree with you more. I'm seeing more examples every day where the need for public relations professionals, especially those with an understanding of digital communications, has grown.

Eden Spodek
Eden Spodek

I'm also friends with Connie Crosby and Dave Delaney. They are two of the last people I'd ever expect to be accused of twitter spamming. I agree, twitter could have done a better job of communicating with the eight individuals involved. I'm not sure twitter needed to announce the problem on their blog as some people suggested but they could have have done a better job of contacting the eight individuals. As for the role of a PR professional on the twitter team, I couldn't agree with you more. I'm seeing more examples every day where the need for public relations professionals, especially those with an understanding of digital communications, has grown.

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

Hi Dave:

You make a good point, that a PR specialist would have known better how to handle this. Crystal from Twitter has now been in more personal contact with me and Dave Delaney. And Jason Goldman has been stellar in trouble-shooting in the help forum. Took them a while to figure out how to deal with us, but I think they have learned albeit the hard way!

I have posted my take on the whole thing over on my blog: "Connie Crosby's Day Off, Or How Twitter Decided We Needed a Break" http://tinyurl.com/5hrznx

Enjoy!
Connie

Connie Crosby
Connie Crosby

Hi Dave: You make a good point, that a PR specialist would have known better how to handle this. Crystal from Twitter has now been in more personal contact with me and Dave Delaney. And Jason Goldman has been stellar in trouble-shooting in the help forum. Took them a while to figure out how to deal with us, but I think they have learned albeit the hard way! I have posted my take on the whole thing over on my blog: "Connie Crosby's Day Off, Or How Twitter Decided We Needed a Break" http://tinyurl.com/5hrznx Enjoy! Connie

Amrita Chandra
Amrita Chandra

Good synopsis of lessons learned. The personalization one in particular is something that seems so simple but is often overlooked. There is no worse feeling that thinking your email/Tweet/inquiry to a company has gone into a black hole which is what you feel when you get a cut and paste response.

The Twitter situation can happen at any company, to different degrees. Nice reminder of how to make the best of a bad situation when it is happening to you.

Amrita Chandra
Amrita Chandra

Good synopsis of lessons learned. The personalization one in particular is something that seems so simple but is often overlooked. There is no worse feeling that thinking your email/Tweet/inquiry to a company has gone into a black hole which is what you feel when you get a cut and paste response. The Twitter situation can happen at any company, to different degrees. Nice reminder of how to make the best of a bad situation when it is happening to you.

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