Social media effect: people laughing and pointing at laptop screen

I don’t know if you’ve read my Fun Facts Friday interview, but I’m an occasional video gamer. One of my biggest weaknesses has been The Elder Scrolls series, from Morrowind and Oblivion to Skyrim and, now, The Elder Scrolls Online.

Full disclosure: I love the game. But as someone who works in the PR field and does social media and content marketing for tech companies, I writhed in pain when I saw the constant fumbling by developer Zenimax Online during the game’s rocky launch I specifically didn’t buy the game for a few weeks, because of the torrent of negative feedback. From Reddit to YouTube to Facebook to Twitter, people were hollering at Zenimax to fix glitches and latency issues. These were fair criticisms, but something struck me – the sheer volume of this discontent wasn’t even possible in 2004, when similar issues plagued a similar game (World of Warcraft) from the starting gate. I know how bad it was, because I was there.

The massive adoption of social media has made it possible for customers to instantly voice their discontent. A flawed, albeit good product, is something that loyal and understanding customers will support, but only if you reassure them that you’re working as hard as you can to fix the problems. Loudly and constantly.

Zenimax didn’t do that.

The Silent Treatment

During a crisis, companies instinctually go quiet. Business leaders want to make a cohesive plan. They want to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. They especially don’t want to spook shareholders. This can sometimes be resolved by great customer service, but if your customer service is a mish-mash of medieval-speak and nonsense (as players of ESO have reported), you’ll only isolate the customer base even more.

The problem with the silent treatment is that a company’s silence is quickly filled with the customer’s complaints. Negative feedback rushes over social media like a flood, with only a few anchors of haplessly loyal customers to keep things at bay. This doesn’t just hurt current customer experience, it harms future sales. Here’s the thing every company needs to keep in mind during these crises of consumer confidence: 90 percent of customers say that their buying decisions are influenced by online reviews. More importantly: Pew research found that Twitter isn’t a great source of majority opinion, it’s a great source of vocal opinion. As Pew writes:

On Twitter, groups of people come together around news events they feel passionately about. But opinions expressed on Twitter often differ from broad public opinion.

I’d say it’s safe to assume that’s also the case for online reviews, comments and social media in general. Vocal minorities play a very big role in the conversations that take place on the Internet, but many other people are listening. And, even brand loyalists (like myself) can be swayed by enough anonymous anger by people who have had bad experiences.

If prospective customers are evaluating your product – and already have a bias toward buying it – they still might refrain if all they see is negative feedback and no reassurance from the company.

Today, consumers are looking at peer reviews, not official statements from the company.

The Strength of Brand

Despite the negative feedback, the anger about very critical in-game issues, the YouTube videos demoing how laggy and/or generally unsatisfactory the game was and a cauldron’s worth of lukewarm reviews, I still bought The Elder Scrolls Online. Two weeks into my research, I viewed the purchase as a very big risk that would potentially be a waste of money. But I was loyal to The Elder Scrolls brand that had been built up over the years. That particular brand loyalty managed to hold strong. So I bought the game, fully expecting to be disappointed.

But… I wasn’t. Nothing crashed. There were no obvious glitches. There wasn’t even lag. What I found, instead, was that Elder Scrolls Online was pretty awesome. It took a few hours for me to even admit that to myself, because I had read the opinions of so many other people who were vehement about not enjoying the game. Part of this is because I did wait for Zenimax Online to fix some things. I had been part of these kinds of launches before and wanted to sit this one out, until everything calmed down.

But the echo chamber effect of negativity means that, even after the game has largely been patched up, the bad reviews and angry comments still haunt prospective buyers. It took two days for me to convince my friend that the game wasn’t going to immediately burst into a ball of flame when he installed it, because he had seen the same kind of awful coverage.

A Social Media Time Warp

As for Zenimax, well, they released a “State of the Game” address two weeks after launch (and a new announcement today). That’s not bad, but, thanks to the 24/7 flood of social media – and the vocal minority citing horrible issues related to lost items, time and hours played – Zenimax’s response seemed like too little, too late. Even though most players won’t experience any of the issues that the minority faced in the early days of the product’s release, it will continue to seem as if the issues were pervasive across the game. Without a coherent communications strategy, Zenimax let a wave of negative customer experiences dominate the conversation and drown out any positive ones.

Crisis communications is a matter of transparency. Even on social media, people are reasonable – if it doesn’t seem like a business is trying to keep secrets. Proactive crisis management means being open with a community across every channel… and especially flexible about compensation (Zenimax just recently said it would reimburse customers for time lost). This won’t just help alleviate the concerns about customers who are already invested in the product, it will make them more patient and understanding of the issues at-hand.

A transparent business will ultimately get more support from the customer base than a company that seems to only be interested in revenue. That support can lead to advocacy, and that advocacy can help change the conversation.

That’s what businesses should realize. Social media channels have made product purchases into an interaction, real-time conversation. If companies aren’t part of that conversation, that doesn’t mean it will go away, it just means the company’s voice – and the great parts of the product – will get lost in the crowd.


This post was first published by Blaise Lucey on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.