The Crowd Is Watching: Social Media and the Shrinking Margin for Error

ProtestJudging from the vociferous comments in the social media atmosphere, one might think that Netflix's decision to split itself in two or Bank of America's introduction of a debit card fee were some of the worst horrors ever visited upon the human race. BofA isn't likely to reverse its decision, even if thousands of people really do drop their banks for a credit union on Bank Transfer Day. However, the online uproar certainly prompted Netflix to first apologize for not doing a better job of explaining its decision—and then to reverse the decision entirely. [Update 11-1-11: In response to an overwhelming number of complaints, BofA just announced it is scrapping plans to introduce the debit card fee. The crowd has spoken!]

When we began covering social media in our textbooks some years ago, it was soon apparent that these new tools were much more than tools: They were disruptive technologies that were going to fundamentally alter the relationships between companies and their stakeholders. Sure enough, consumers have more power to influence business than ever before, and they aren't always yielding that power with a gentle touch and a kind word.

In addition to aggregating consumer voices, social media can amplify consumer moods and emotions. Unpopular decisions that might have once caused little more than isolated, ineffectual grumbling can now spark organized protests that tarnish brands, deplete goodwill, and even cause changes in corporate strategy.

The message to companies: You better get it right, you better get it right the first time, and you better explain yourself before, during, and after every change you make. Effective communication has never been as important as it is in this volatile new world of business. And even if you're doing something that makes strategic or financial sense, prepare yourself for a negative response.

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