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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

When FaceBook Runs Out of Control

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The perils of token experimentation with social networking were amply illustrated a few weeks ago when transatlantic carrier Virgin Atlantic fired a dozen staff who criticized passengers on the company's FaceBook pages. Like its domestic US sister brand Virgin America, the airline (my preferred carrier when flying to the US) likes to cultivate a young, trendy image, but its embrace of FaceBook has been an object lesson in how not to embark on a social networking marketing strategy.

As Oliver Marks explained last month in his Collaboration 2.0 blog, Virgin Atlantic seems to have rolled out its FaceBook pages without a clear idea of how it would engage customers who signed up as 'fans', and without thinking through what might go wrong if the public pages were the only forum where staff could express themselves:

"There is a yinyang relationship between a well organized internal network (where the fired flight attendants should have been allowed to whine and grumble, and also been given guidance) and the outward facing social network, where Virgin's high standards of customer service should apply to promptly commune with customer questions and concerns as well as enjoy the 'fan' status conferred on them by members of their group."

Virgin Atlantic seems to have treated its FaceBook presence as the online equivalent of an in-flight magazine, seeing it as a forum for reinforcing its own marketing messages rather than giving customers a reason to participate and keep coming back. While that approach might work with an inert seatback publication, it's a strategy that leaves an awkward vacuum on a social networking site, and Virgin has paid the penalty for its failure to properly develop and manage its FaceBook experiment.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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