The other day, I received a direct message on Twitter from an unhappy bank customer who claimed his or her bank had lost a large ATM deposit. Now, people complain about their banks every day, and the bigger the bank the more rampant the kvetching.
What was unusual about this case was the person had set up a Twitter handle and account name that incorporated the bank's name, and the account profile page featured a realistic-looking though fuzzy bank logo. More than 100 tweets had been posted from the account, some direct complaints about the bank, others retweets of other consumers' issues with it. The bank chose not to comment about the account on the record.
The incident left me wondering: Is it a good thing that social media lets anybody air any grievance so openly? Perhaps this is a healthy form of free speech that could lead to correction or reform. Then again, the anonymity of Twitter may let someone make false accusations from behind a veil, preventing the accused from facing the accuser.
And, more importantly for those running a targeted bank: what should the response be?
Some observers say that in cases where the Twitter account has a small number of followers in this case, six it doesnt matter.
"There are lots of these types of accounts, usually run by a disgruntled customer," said Jacob Jegher, research director at the technology analysis firm Celent. "This one has few followers so I dont think much of it."
Nick Hayes, an analyst at the tech research firm Forrester, similarly observed that banks typically only start paying attention to rogue Tweeters when they gain a large following.
"The more influential these tweets and this account becomes, the more threatening to the brand it is and the more the bank might be looking to take action," he said.
Others see this as a customer service and communication issue that should be quickly identified and addressed, even if the numbers are small.
"Every customer should be serviced, particularly when the account offers service, regardless of the number of followers," said Alex Jimenez, director of digital channel management at Rockland Trust in Hanover, Ma. "If [the bank is] not willing to listen to all customers it should exit Twitter."
Frank Eliason, global director of customer experience for @Citi, sees such matters as a call to take action that goes beyond the individual incidents.
"It happens more than you realize, and it is why companies must fix their service experiences," he said. "Customers now realize they can take control of a brand's image through these channels."
Hayes also sees this as wake-up call to the need to monitor and protect brands across social media and all corners of the Internet.
"Instances where a Twitter account is trying to represent a company using the same logo, a similar name that's a brand impersonation and violates the policy the social networks set," he said. Organizations can appeal to Twitter and other social networks to kick brand impersonators out.
In a somewhat similar case, Hayes said, environmental groups Greenpeace and Yes Men created a fake Shell account called @ShellisPrepared with images of polar bears and gas lines and messages like "Birds are like sponges for oil!" Shell didn't have a Twitter presence at the time.
"It gained a number of followers who all thought they were following Shell and couldn't believe they were making fun of environmental issues," he said. "It gained this huge following and the response was really slow by Shell because they didn't have a verified account, so they had a tough time responding to the crisis to inform their customers and the broader public that this wasn't them."
What every bank should have, in Hayes' view, is a program in place for monitoring for this kind of activity.
"When you're with a bank you have to be thinking about not just brand impersonations, but also former employees, current employees, and how they're representing the organization how they're associated with you and other divisions of your organization that create new accounts," he said. Large organizations have new Twitter accounts appearing every day and they need to track them to identify threats quickly.
Several software companies, including Nexgate, CSC, MarkMonitor, BrandProtect, Corsearch (that one's owned by Wolters Kluwer) and NetNames Global all have software that searches for unofficial social media postings as well as unauthorized uses of a brand on the Internet. These programs also are designed to help take down information that is inaccurate or fraudulent.
What if the information is accurate and the posted complaints are legitimate?
"The more you try to take down content that could appear to be legit, the more it paints the wrong picture from a brand perspective," said Hayes. "Customers have and need the ability to complain about products and services, and there are clear cases where brands need to get involved and apologize."
One user complained about the experience he had at an airline when his luggage was lost. He was so upset that he spent over $1,000 on sponsored Twitter ads targeting all of British Airways' customers. There wasn't anything British Airways could do about it.
"That's why it's important to focus on the customer experience and needs, because those issues will boil up and turn customers away," Hayes said.