Failing as a Brand Strategy

If you’ve been using Twitter, you know the issue. The service’s reliability has been challenged recently, to say the least. It ranges from minor inconveniences to outright total failure, and Twitter members have seen more than their share of “Twitter is stressing out a bit right now…” messages. Yet Twitter continues. In fact, by most conventional measures it’s doing better in terms of members, usage, and loyalty. Sure, there’s plenty of discussion at TechCrunch and similar sites that take Twitter and its challenges to task, but the general conversation actually on Twitter is still “we’re with you.”

Relevant to e-marketers is that technical challenges — scalability, service levels, and downtime, for example — remain part of the game for nearly any online application. It happens to all of us. If it doesn’t happen, it’s generally because we aren’t pushing hard enough. Or we’re in denial about how our customers define failure and we ignore the conversations they’re having among themselves.

Savvy e-marketers actively listen to these conversations as they develop on the social Web. They aren’t relying on internally led PR communications processes to manage failures and other issues. Instead, they are dealing with them when and where they arise.

What helps Twitter keep going? Its core concept and an overall highly satisfying user experience when things are working. Twitter is built around a simple, chat-like interface that leads to a large, diverse social community that would normally be buried under layers of profiles, installed applications, groups, favorites, and more. If MySpace and Facebook are 747s, Twitter is a magic carpet. Twitter consists of a text box, 140 characters, and a submit button. Around that has developed a vibrant community of people who talk to each other — all day, more or less every day. Services like Seesmic, a sort of video Twitter, are sowing similar communities around the basic notion of conversation. Clearly, “just talking” is a popular activity on the social Web. Hey, maybe getting to know each other will be the next killer app!

Also helping Twitter: its open conversation about its outages. Regardless of the internal issues, the external message has been “We know about this. We are sorry about this. We are working hard to correct it.” That sort of straightforward acknowledgement goes a long way toward maintaining loyalty and instilling in members — like me, evansdave — a sense of “How can I help?” instead of “Geez, this sucks. What other free service can I jump to instead?”

For marketers, the takeaway is that being open and honest about what’s going on is increasingly rewarded in an important marketing context — the social Web. The social Web values individual contribution and empowerment. It makes people feel valued, connected, part of the game. In business, this means they’re invited to become part of the brand, product, or service. By sharing details — the good, bad, or ugly — your customers develop a relationship with your brand based on ownership rather than subservience.

So just how does failing fare as a brand pillar?

Long ago, Twitter adopted the Fail Whale, designed by Yiying Lu, that is displayed when Twitter goes down. It’s a sort of graphical error message, but actually goes further than that. While “site not available” tells you the site isn’t available, the image of a whale being lifted to safety by a network of a smaller birds (tweets, get it?) provides an additional insight into the Twitter brand. Twitter is all about community, and the way in which a community sticks together for its own benefit and preservation.

The Fail Whale image, consistent with the user-driven norm of social applications, is now a brand of its own. sells shirts, caps, mugs, and more featuring the Fail Whale. Last week, and from none other than my hometown of Rochester, NY, Jeff Sonstein, a professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, launched the First Interplanetary Fail Whale Pale Ale Label Contest. Featuring a $200 cash prize put up by the Fail Whale Fan Club, along with presumably all the FWPA you can drink, at least on that day, the growing presence of the Fail Whale has taken another step forward. You can follow Jeff and the Fail Whale Pale Ale contest at Twemes for more information.

The net of all of this is that Twitter is now its own underdog. Its community is part of the fight for survival. Loyal members expect some downtime. And frustrated as they are — make no mistake, five 9s (define) would be awesome — they are OK with it for time being. It goes back to the way the Twitter team is handling things: it knows what the stakes are (enough real failure remains a proven path to extinction) and it knows what it has to do (as Lewis Black put it, “Fix it!”).

Think about this as you take your own brand into the social markets. Open, honest, transparent communication not only keeps you out of trouble, it also sets up the kind of relationships with your customers that will get you through the hard times. In the fast-paced world of Web 2.0 and accelerated application development, that’s money in the bank.

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