A tale of three Twitter Q&As

They say that there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about, but there is at least one Twitter-burnt company out there that would probably disagree.

When British Gas decided to engage with its customers just after it announced a ten per cent price rise by launching a Twitter Q&A, its #AskBG hashtag trended all day. A social media success, you might think, but sometimes Twitter can garner publicity for all the wrong reasons.

British Gas customers were angry. Very angry. They vented their spleen with their tweets, which included such gems as @BritishGas #AskBG What is the best temperature to thaw an elderly relative at and what seasoning would you use with one?

'We checked on Friday afternoon and found 145 tweets contained the word 'death', 88 'greedy' and 72... a word not fit to print in a family newspaper,' explains Matt Owen, head of social at Econsultancy. 'They did underline a real sense of outrage at such a large rise.'

Days after British Gas burnt its social media fingers, two other entities also took part in similar sessions. The first was the Bank of England, which launched its first ever Twitter Q&A, hashtagged #AskBOE, with chief economist Spencer Dale behind the 140 character replies.

The second was budget airline Ryanair, whose outspoken chief executive Michael O'Leary also debuted on Twitter under the hashtag #GrillMOL. The Q&As could not have been more different. The Bank of England's was a sedate affair, enlivened only by a picture of Dale being compared with a large tabby cat. He responded spiritedly I think that is a paw likeness and questions are starting to tail off.

But Dale's tweeters were pussycats compared to those who engaged with O'Leary. They called him a 'sexist pig', told him he 'needed therapy' and asked whether his flights were 'fuelled by leprechaun urine'. Admittedly, some onlookers might suggest that he asked for this kind of reaction - one of his first responses to a (woman) tweeting a question was Nice pic. Phwoaaaa.

Despite the approbation, Ryanair judged its Twitter Q&A a success, and repeated it again the following week. Robin Kiely, the airline's head of communications, says he was 'delighted with the high level of interest #GrillMOL received'.

'It was a chance for our passengers to put their questions directly to Michael O'Leary and for him to engage with some of the 81 million people we carry annually,' he adds.

Why did the Q&A format work for the Bank of England, fail so spectacularly for British Gas and provoke such a mixed reaction for Ryanair? The answer, experts say, is partly due to the brand, and partly due to timing and preparation.

'This kind of format is really effective if it's done by the right people, at the right time, in the right way,' says Freddie Young, community director at social media agency 1000 Heads. 'It's important to be aware of sentiment about your brand, and what people's gripes are likely to be - if you're going to be receiving lots of negative approaches, you need a strategy for dealing with them.

'Timing is crucial, and this was the main issue with the British Gas example. With the Q&A happening so soon after the announcement of price increases, it was destined to attract a lot of negativity - and the team organising it didn't seem to have a plan in place for dealing with this.'

#AskBG enraged the Twittersphere because British Gas kept repeating the same message - namely that it was hiking prices as a response to the rising price of wholesale gas. Even after the social media mauling it stood by the decision to go on Twitter, stating 'Our announcement today is difficult news for customers. We didn't make this decision lightly. We know people are worried about rising energy prices and they want to talk about this - including on Twitter - and it's important we're there for them to talk to.'

Thanks to the level of anger, however, people are unlikely to remember British Gas' willingness to engage, because their heads are now full of images of shivering families. As Sophie Paton, business leader at marketing consultancy Make Happy, points out, the Twitter Q&A gave people a central point at which to vent their anger. 'By setting up and promoting the session, they ignited and galvanised the vitriolic response, handing over a hashtag to collate all the attacks in to one easily searchable term,' she says.

'Moreover, they tried to respond to their critics on a rational level, armed with facts, stats and rational arguments. Whereas the most memorable tweets were operating on an emotional level, talking not about wholesale price rises, but impoverished pensioners forced to choose between heating or eating.'

Given the danger demonstrated by British Gas, why were the Bank of England and Ryanair willing to put their own brands on the line with a Twitter Q&A? Young believes this form of engagement can be powerful, so although it is dangerous to hand this power over to consumers, it is usually worthwhile.

'British Gas is an extreme example,' he explains.

'The vast majority of Q&As pass without incident - and, as with the Bank of England example, they can be an excellent way of opening up a business, demystifying its offering and encouraging empathy.'

The Bank of England, which answered 85 questions, was delighted with the success of its debut Q&A. Dales says that it was a 'pretty challenging hour - not least answering difficult questions in 140 characters' but adds he was 'extremely pleased with all the interest'.

'We think it's important for our legitimacy that we listen to people's concerns and answer their questions,' a Bank spokesman adds.

The Bank prepared as much as possible for the Q&A - collating questions in advance, and having answers prepared for as many of those as possible before going 'live'. Dale then dealt with other questions as they came in - including the tweet noting his resemblance to a tabby cat.

Ryanair, too, asked for questions in advance, but O'Leary did not come across as prepared for the onslaught from his customers. In fact, at one point, he tweeted Just found out what hashtags are. Learning on da job.

Sarah Oliver, account director at Think Social, the digital agency, says that although Ryanair could have been better prepared, the airline fared better than British Gas because of its brand positioning.

'People expect it from Ryanair,' she explains. 'They expect poor customer service and they have low expectations. So while it probably wasn't the wisest idea, it didn't do too much damage either.'

Certainly Ryanair has been keen to repeat the experiment, while British Gas's Twitter feed remained almost silent in the weeks following the Twitter storm and is advertising for a social media manager. When it comes to engaging with customers, the energy giant may be off the boil for a while.

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