Social media is part of the fabric of everyday life and business in Australia. According to the 2015 Sensis Social Media Report, nearly 50% of Australian consumers access social media daily; 24% to follow or find out about particular brands or businesses. Recognising this trend, 84% of large businesses, 69% of medium-sized businesses, and 64% of small businesses in Australia engage daily with customers on social media. They recognise the power of social media for promoting their brands and driving business growth.

But social media also has the power to generate negative brand impressions with incredible speed. When businesses fail to live up to their customers’ expectations, those same customers often turn to social media to let the world know about it.

A technology outage that impacts your ability to serve customers could set off a viral storm of negative vitriol.

The ‘social media effect’

A dramatic example of the ‘social media effect’ occurred in July of 2012 when mobile communications service provider O2 experienced a two-day outage in the UK, reportedly due to a single point of failure in its subscriber database during a technology transition. Almost immediately, social media was afire with posts and tweets from angry subscribers, some of whom threatened to cancel their service. According to reports, O2’s Twitter followers’ comments ballooned from an average of 155 per day to 13,500, pushing up O2 as a Twitter topic by nearly 5,000%.

What’s interesting about this story is how O2 responded. Rather than cower behind cold corporate speak, the company took to social media with a decidedly open and human approach. The company’s social media team responded to the tweets, including the negative and abusive ones, with comments that were equal parts accountability and humour. This refreshing approach made people feel that they were dealing with real, fallible humans rather than a faceless corporation. Angry tweets soon turned to messages of support for the beleaguered company.

What can be learned from O2’s experience?

First, if you don’t have a social media strategy already, consider making it a priority. That means devoting the resources to monitoring social media platforms and having a plan to inform customers proactively and respond to issues quickly, thoughtfully and with openness—and possibly even a little humble humour.

The other important lesson is this: In the age of social media, one minute of downtime is one minute too many. That means getting serious about availability.

Start by identifying your potential vulnerabilities to eliminate any single point of failures. Which services and systems could impact customers if they were down, even for just a few minutes or seconds? Some government regulatory authorities specify technology risk management guidelines that can be useful in this identification and qualification of critical systems. As more companies evolve toward an ‘always on’ business model, the potential for even a minor outage to impact customers is increased. Even outages that don’t impact customer-facing systems could affect your customer service team’s ability to access information or tools essential for supporting customers. Either way, the effect is the same: poor service, unhappy customers, and damage to your reputation and, potentially, your bottom line.

Focusing on availability is no longer just an IT function; it’s a strategic imperative in today’s ‘always on’ world. Customers today are less tolerant of faults in the companies they do business with, which means services need to be more fault-tolerant. Making sure you have a solid social media strategy and that you have a plan for keeping your business systems available to support your customers all the time are critical steps for protecting your company’s hard-earned brand equity.