Anyone with an interest in business use of social media should have had their eyes firmly glued to Twitter this weekend as a major transport operator learnt exactly how the customer engagement game has changed.
For those who don't know, five Eurostar trains heading for the UK broke down in the Channel Tunnel on Friday evening leaving 2,000 passengers stranded for several hours. A lack of water, heat and limited toilet facilities added to the unpleasant conditions and as more trains were cancelled further disruption was caused.
Unsurprisingly (at least for us regular tweeters) passengers on board the affected trains and those waiting for friends and families to arrive in London posted on Twitter seeking information. Among them was Colette Ballou, a passenger stranded on a train, who tweeted: "Shocked at how unprepared and uncommunicative Eurostar was. Eurostar failed to communicate with passengers and social media told the truth and got it to mainstream media fast."
It was at this point that a PR crisis management plan which fully embraced social media should have sprung into action. It didn't.
Eurostar does have a presence on Twitter through its @little_break feed but like many big corporates it has made the mistake of solely using the network for marketing. Set up as part of the company's Little break, Big difference campaign by social media agency We Are Social, the feed is used to tweet special offers and information about Eurostar destinations. Its Belgian operation also tweets marketing updates through @creamoflondon. But when crisis strikes, that isn't enough.
With no respond plan in place, Eurostar floundered. They were also revealed to be a victim of brand hijacking as a Twitter stream going by the name of @Eurostar_Uk was quickly shown to be a fake.
So what should be learnt from this episode?
The biggest lesson is that customers don't know (or care about) the difference between marketing and customer service feeds. All they want is answers and the company needs to provide them. The prevalence of mobile phones and other devices means that the power is in the hands of the customer and they can provide instant feedback no matter where they are.
In a blog post, We Are Social managing director Robin Grant revealed Eurostar's cautious approach to social media. When an idea for a "real-time social media listening and responding programme and crisis plan" was suggested, the company "could see the long term benefits of such a strategy, however as adapting their existing processes had wider implications across the business they decided to start small by moving forward with the Little break, Big difference campaign, to learn from the experience of engaging in conversations in social media".
Eurostar certainly learnt something this weekend!
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying a business' whole engagement policy should focus on social media but it has to be a major part of the process. The way customers engage with businesses has changed and any business - no matter how big or small - needs to accept that.
Like Richard Baker, who set up a Twitter account to converse with customers while working at Virgin Trains, said in a blog post: "Twitter belongs to everyone in the organisation who cares a jot about their customers. That requires more fundamental changes inside organisations to make sure departments are talking to each other."
To give the company its due, Eurostar's use of social media has improved over the past 48 hours. Its Twitter feeds are now being used to update customers on delays, cancellations and refunds and company chief executive Richard Brown used YouTube to apologise:
But the big question is will Eurostar's approach to social media remain so positive? Will the company claim ownership of the @Eurostar_Uk account and will the @little_break account revert back to being solely about marketing? I'll be watching closely.
UPDATE (1600 GMT):
Media Week reports that Eurostar has cancelled its 2010 marketing activity as a result of the weekend's events. Sales and marketing director Emma Harris admitted to Brand Republic that the company has a "big job to do from a brand point of view" after three days of "quite damaging" disruption. A meeting has been called for tomorrow with all concerned to discuss a rethink of its approach to social media marketing next year. Watch this space!
UPDATE (1745 GMT):
Eurostar does seem to be starting to 'get it. The Little break, Big difference website is being used to post updates on the situation. The latest includes a YouTube video Q&A with the company's commercial director Nick Mercer:
The only problem with this strategy is that most customers will be going to www.eurostar.com rather than an obscure marketing website. The corporate site does contain information on the current situation but not as much as on Littlebreakbigdifference.com. This suggests We Are Social are still struggling to convince Eurostar head office about expanding their new found social media engagement strategy to their mainstream website.
UPDATE (2125 GMT):
After revealing that Eurostar services will resume on Tuesday, the profile of the @little_break account has been changed, almost certainly by We Are Social. Removing the previous marketing material is has been replaced with "Official Eurostar Twitter feed" and "Thanks for understanding".
Interestingly, the new profile admits the team updating it is "not Eurostar customer service" indicating that the department with customer engagement at its heart is still not embracing the social media way of doing things.