Paul Gillin sent along an excerpt for us from his new book, The New Influencers (Quill Driver Books, 2007 – see official website). I had the chance to talk to Paul during the writing of his book and received my copy yesterday – though I only had time to skim the book so far, this looks like a great read, especially for anyone who wants to better understand the blogosphere. Google Blogoscoped also appears, and I’d like to pass on one sentence to all of you... “as with many enthusiasts, his best sources are his readers.”
Ferrari thought it would be an interesting experiment to record his phone call with the AOL representative. If there was something funny there, he’d share it with a few friends and everyone would have a laugh. “I didn’t expect much,” he says.
The call was cosmic. After spending 15 minutes on hold, Ferrari was connected to a rep named John, who spent the next five minutes trying to convince Ferrari that it would be a terrible idea to disconnect the service. Even though Ferrari demand 15 times to “cancel the account,” during one three-minute stretch, John persisted. The height of absurdity was reached when the rep asked to speak to Ferrari’s father. Ferrari was 30 at the time.
Vincent Ferrari’s been blogging for four years. His Insignificant Thoughts blog gets good traffic: about 350,000 page views a month, enough to make the top 3,000 on the Technorati blog search engine. But he’s hardly an A-list blogger. Ferrari didn’t think much about the recording and sat on it for a week.
On June 20, he posted the audio file. “Anyone else have an interesting ’cancellation’ story from AOL or some other company?” he asked. Ferrari also sent an e-mail notification to Consumerist.com, a consumer advocacy site that specializes in telling nightmare stories, and to digg.com, a social media site where readers vote for their favorite articles.
What happened next was indeed a nightmare – for AOL. Consumerist published a link to Ferrari’s blog post, calling the recording “The Best Thing We Have Ever Posted.” An hour later, Ferrari’s Internet server crashed under the crushing load of an estimated 300,000 requests for downloads of the audio file.
Within 45 minutes, the servers had crashed again, as they would a couple of more times before the saga ended. In fact, Ferrari’s server logged 15 times its usual network bandwidth in June, almost all of it in the last 10 days of the month.
By June 24, the state of the servers didn’t matter any more. The story had a life of its own. Copies of the phone call were turning up all over the Internet. On Saturday, a friend called to tell Ferrari that the story had been covered in the New York Post. On Sunday, a squib ran in The New York Times. The servers crashed again.
On Monday, CNBC called for a phone interview. Then NBC. On Tuesday, June 26, just six days after he had posted the recording, Vincent Ferrari was interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show, which played a full three-minute clip of the phone call. “How did you remain calm?” an incredulous Lauer asked. Another 25 to 30 media calls followed; Ferrari lost count. On July 14, he was on Nightline.
And that was just mainstream media. Thousands of blogs and websites picked up the story, including A-list blogs like BoingBoing.net, Metafilter.com and Fark.com. On July 19, Consumerist posted what it said was an AOL retention manual, an 89-page document with detailed flowcharts showing how to head off a customer cancellation. The site ran a photo of a smoking cigarette protruding from the barrel of a gun. By Aug. 1, a Google search on “Vincent Ferrari” and “AOL” returned more than 19,000 results.
Through it all, AOL remained grimly stoic. The company issued an apology, said it fired the rep (who was probably guilty only of overzealousness) and declared the incident “inexcusable.” But it couldn’t ignore the comments that were accumulating on Insignificant Thoughts; more than 1,000 of them, most of them outraged at AOL, some by AOL employees. “I’m so glad someone recorded this,” read one. “I work at AOL so I know what a shit company it is.” Added another self-described AOL employee, simply, “I finally feel like I have my soul back.” Thousands of similar comments were logged on other sites that played the sound clip.
On August 2, AOL announced that it would stop charging certain customers for access to its service. The process of dismantling its customer retention organization had begun. A spokeswoman said the decision was reached after months of analysis and had nothing to do with the Ferrari incident.
And she was probably right. At least to a point. Vincent Ferrari may not have caused AOL to change it business model, but he must have influenced it. He lit a match that set off a conflagration of customer complaint. AOL probably knew that its hard-sell tactics were unpopular, but it probably didn’t know the degree to which those tactics inspired rage among its customer.
Try this yourself: Type “aol customer service” into Google and look at the first page of results. This company had a problem. Vincent Ferrari wasn’t AOL’s enemy. He was merely a catalyst for the enemies to make themselves known.
What happened to AOL is sometimes called a “blog swarm” and it is one of the most awesome meteorological phenomena of the social media atmosphere. Blog swarms of AOL proportion don’t happen very often, but smaller cloudbursts occur every day in different corners of the blogosphere. And outright swarms are becoming more common.
Understanding how these clouds of dissension form turns out to be about as difficult as modeling the real weather. No one really has the answers. But some patterns are beginning to emerge as experts try to model the complex patterns of influence in this vast peer network.
The disruptive power of social media is made starkly real in crises like the AOL swarm and it’s something businesses will have to learn to adjust to. “Just about every company will have a problem with a product or service, resulting in unhappy customers,” wrote Marqui, a developer of Web-based marketing automation software, in a 2006 white paper. “What has changed ... is that disgruntled customers now have a greater reach, a louder voice, than they ever did in the past. News travels very, very fast in the Web 2.0 world – and bad news can spread through the blogvines like wild fire.”
Conventional marketing wisdom has long held that a dissatisfied customer tells 10 people. But that’s out of date. In the new age of social media, he or she has the tools to tell 10 million.
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