Virgin Media is about to activate its social media

If you want to know what people are saying about you, you must listen.

Parts of Virgin Media are already doing this, and the company plans to do more of the same.

The bad…

The backstory: given that I’d been trying for two months to get broadband since my house move, I  recently posted a non-too-complimentary missive about both Virgin Media and BT.

Virgin Media had been my ISP for three years and yet they seemed incapable of connecting me. Eventually they told me there was a ‘tag’ on the line – whatever that is – and that, if someone had checked this from the outset, I could have had a lot less bother. It turned out that the problem was really with BT.

So I left Virgin Media (from now on VM for the sake of my fingers), and decided to pursue BT. This was the second circle of hell, and six weeks later, I’m finally online.

… the good…

At the time of posting I decided not to turn it into just another whinge. I thought it would be interesting to pack it with keywords and links that should have made it as easy as possible for these suppliers to find me, especially given that this post would end up on my Twitter feed and Friendfeed, erm, feed.

Sally Whittle picked up on this, so it seemed fair to expect others to. I thought it would be an interesting social media experiment. I thought, “Let’s see whether those companies are actually on the lookout for posts about themselves. Potential consumers will be out there looking for reviews of ISP performance, so I wonder whether ISPs themselves are looking out for, well, reviews of their own performance.”

And VM found me – three times*. I was approached by Alex Brown and Paula Wills with an offer of help, and they put me in touch with Asam Ahmad, who is involved with VM’s online PR (note: I haven’t included Twitter links here for the reasons you’ll see below)

… and the coffee

So, Friday before last, I met up with Asam to talk about social media monitoring.

As with the Friendly Chat interviews I conducted last year, this took the form of a fairly open-ended conversation – no ‘ambush’ interviews, no recordings, just me furiously scribbling on a notepad in longhand while trying to concentrate on what was said and avoiding spilling my coffee. And this is what we talked about…

Turns out that, later that day in fact, VM was to receive the results of a major report on potential areas of social media activity. Conducted by an external agency, this looked at all aspects of social media, across all platforms, including VM’s competition. 360 degree reviews are commonplace in PR, and this sounded pretty comprehensive to me.

Obviously Asam couldn’t share the findings with me – he didn’t know them himself! – but he was able to tell me how this came about.

Activists activate

It seems that VM already has ‘activists’ who are already clued up, and already on Twitter, with alerts set up across various platforms to pop up when a mention of its name comes up. This is probably how Alex and Paula found me in the first place – and kind of what I was hoping would happen when I posted. Moreover, they had the foresight to put me in touch with Asam.

Activists is a good name. Companies need activists to forge change – and how things are changing.

These VM activists are already improving their internal comms. Asam has already found that, within a company of thousands of employees, he’s finding it really useful simply to follow colleagues and get an idea of what they’re up to. Informality is key. You can have any number of  ‘awareness days’ or ‘focus groups’ but a company’s ability to create horizontal, small-world networks across its organisation could yield immensely powerful forces for positive change.

This very much reflects the findings of the recent AT&T Enterprise 2.0 study (disclosure: I worked on the report while at Fleishman-Hillard) which also found that employees felt they were benefitting from internal networks.

This is important. The next generation of employees will already be using these networks and will expect to be able to use them in their work – as, equally importantly, will their clients. In my first ‘real’ job I was surprised to have access to email: now, I expect it to be there (who doesn’t?), and it’s a tool I use every day. Facebook, Twitter et al will be equally as important, and more powerful, in the future.

From Virgin Media to social media

So VM already has a loosely affiliated group of activists. It’s now figuring out how it can use social media strategically. This involves asking critical questions such as:

  • Where does social media sit? This is crucial. There is a very real risk that, as VM people continue to use social media, they may inadvertently become an ad-hoc frontline for customer support. While this is an area VM are keen to explore, Asam quoted a wonderful example of the MD of NTL:Telewest business using a twitter contact to pass a sales query on to the appropriate internal contact. While it’s great that the MD was able to do that, we’re talking seriously re-wired flows of communication here and obviously this is not a sustainable position.
  • This leads to the next question: how is it resourced? At the moment, Virgin Media’s social media presence is growing organically – their activists are looking at the best ways to use the tools at hand and much of it is done in their spare time. However, if they go out with a big bang, there is a risk that everyone will start to expect immediate service from something that’s in its early stages, and only managed by a handful of VM’s activists. This is why I haven’t listed any Twitter links here. I don’t want these people to become inundated. Yet. Clearly they will need to have internal lines of comms set up that enable the team to pass issues on for quick resolution, and that resource needs to be justified.
  • And justification depends on measurement, in which case, how do you measure success? I see this as A Big Question for social media in the coming year. How do you quantify your social media efforts? As budgets become ever more tightly squeezed, those owning the purse-strings will quite rightly demand to know what the returns are, given the inputs and the risks.

This is actually an age-old PR question: how to place value on relationships. My take on this is that, in meeting Asam and exchanged a few tweets with Alex and Paula, I now think of VM as a group of people rather than a corporate brand. Furthermore, VM has secured a ‘good’ story alongside a bad one, a point very astutely recognised by Rob at It’s Open.

There are other benefits. Asam himself follows journalists and they, in turn, follow him. Not only does he find it useful to get to know them on a daily basis – as he does with his colleagues – but he has insight into what opportunities the journalists are looking for and, in best PR practice, match what he has to offer with what they want. Furthermore they get to see, through following him, how he interacts with customers. It’s open and it’s transparent, and whereas these are just catch-phrases for social media, they’re good.

This is signal, not noise. I interviewed Sally Whittle, a very social media-friendly journalist, last year, and she testified to the drowning of journalists in the ever-increasing noise of social media. It’s true that journalists tend to be hunting for news, given their brief. But what’s wrong with a bit of fishing too?

At the end of the day, the Virgin Media activists found me. What needs to happen is for more of the company to become ‘activated’ too, but in a structured, planned, strategic fashion. The critical questions are around which parts of the company become activated, and how they interact with the rest of it. Virgin Media, to their credit, are addressing this problem now.

And at the end of the day, they found me. BT did not.

* Postscript: To date, BT still haven’t found me. Or, if they have, they haven’t contacted me. I should add that I’m now with BT quite simply because I’m so well acquainted with their support systems and I have a couple of named contacts, so I figure that if anything goes wrong (again), I can schmergle my way through the system and get help. Still, everything seems to be working. I’m listening to some cool Cuban music streamed through Spotify courtesy of BT. Nice.

9 thoughts on “Virgin Media is about to activate its social media

  1. Fantastic post Brendan! Been looking forward to seeing how this unfolded.

    It is an exciting time now that so many organisations are starting to get the feel of social media and understand the strategic and communications imperatives. Throw in some of the enthusiasm that Virgin Media appear to have and you have the recipe for brilliant customer relations. Let’s hope more companies start pulling down the walls and processes they’ve built to manage customers and investing in people-centric approaches like this.

    Oh and congrats on being back on teh internets. I know how painful it can be without broadband…

  2. Thanks Paul. I agree – it does seem that 2008 could be characterised as increasing awareness around social media but 2009 could see increased *action*. Regarding VM especially, proactive social media programmes would also slot neatly into their brand values.

    It’s nice to be back on the interweb! Although now my major headache is getting my Dell Inspiron machine to work properly with any USB soundcard… I swear, I’ve been cursed by technology recently!

  3. Hi Brendan, thanks for this great insight into how large brands are approaching social media.

    I’m not sure if I told you but I actually went for a series of job interviews (I think it was 5 in the end!) with a large media planning and buying company for the role of ‘Social Media Activator’. This was nearly a year ago now and was the first time I had heard the term but perhaps it is growing in popularity.

    In the end they didn’t end up creating the position but the manager who was interviewing me did recognise that to be a full service digital agency they couldn’t rely on creative content alone, communication was / is king of the web 2.0 world.

    As more and more individuals within large organisations start communicating through social media it will no doubt strengthen the communication capabilities of a firm. On Twitter alone, I’m following many CEO’s and being followed by recruitment staff at some large companies. Meaning I have a communication link with companies I would never normally have had any contact with besides their advertising and traditional PR. UNLESS I had a friend that worked for them, which is exactly the point and the reason for these tools in the first place.

    To maximise this is the key and although the tools, and education elements need to be in place, what is most urgently needed is a clear social media policy. Companies need to have simple to understand policies on the use of social media and preferably an expert that their staff can contact when they are unsure. This expert could be in house like Asam or agency side like your Guru self. (nearly works)

    Anyway I think my argument jumped a bit there but, thanks again for an interesting piece. 🙂


  4. Brendan,

    An excellent “personal meets professional” viewpoint reflecting my experience of how many organisations are developing a social media strategy, i.e. driven by a few individuals that ‘get it’ and then can communicate and demonstrate value to their bosses.

    ‘Value’ might be a reduction in customer service emails, increased web traffic, increased positive sentiment or whatever…

    Actvists, strategists, evangelists or just plain old listeners/communicators – the namebadge doesn’t matter.

    The tools are out there for brands and businesses to spot customer complaints as well as opportunities, free research, product/service gaps…and many clued up ‘clientside marketers/customer service/community managers like Asam, Alex and Paula, Guy, Matt, Ros, Anna (the list can go on and on) are using them.

    I wholly agree with the issue that you raise around resourcing. I believe that organisations are being offered the opportunity to not dump ‘active listening’ using social media and other digital channels into a departmental silo (customer service, corporate comms, consumer PR etc) but to give staff regardless of their role, an opportunity to become conversationalists/fixers/listeners and as you say “as a group of people rather than a corporate brand”.

    Sum of its parts and all that…..

  5. Pingback: Headlines 4 Feb 09 —

  6. Brendan, using our social media monitoring tool SM2, I’ve been following your experience with Virgin Media and this follow-up. It’s a great (from my perspective) case study for why companies should monitor and have an engagement strategy. Here in the states we’ve had similar instances with Comcast (YouTubed video of a cable guy sleeping on a customer’s couch) and Dell (bloggers posting recordings of customer support calls from hell) that, in both cases led those companies to belatedly embrace social media. Sounds like Virgin Media is having a similar epiphany!
    I wonder what they are using for social media monitoring? 😉

  7. Brendan,

    Great reality tale about the power of social media. The evolution of “2.0” interactivity is that companies (like Virgin Media) not only need to monitor for mentions of their brand, but they need a strategy. They have to first – listen, second – align their stakeholders/response, and finally – engage in the conversations.

    Your comment about the value of a relationship is golden. Reputation management is now in the hands of the market, no longer the PR department. Companies that get this, and leverage technologies to do this will share ownership of their brand and reputation. Those who don’t could forever loose control.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Thanks Paul!

    Agree with *most* of that, but I’m not entirely sure the reputation management is out of the hands of PR.

    It’s true enough that disintermediation is a big social media theme, but companies still need guidance on how best to handle these relationships, as well as everything that goes on behind the scenes such as strategy, messaging and so on. It’s a conversation, true, but by necessity one that companies need to get value from.

    I see it as a continuum, from the polarities of PR companies having total control of brand image through to companies doing it entirely themselves. Neither is necessarily correct – or workable – but there are stages in-between that characterise a good, balanced relationship between agency and client, or indeed between company and in-house specialists.

    As I said in the post, it’s a question of where this sits – as a separate function, or connecting groups, or permeating the entire company. VM are in the process of deciding this.

  9. Pingback: Virgin Media and BT both be damned « Brendan Cooper – your social media-savvy copywriter

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