Was Operation Chokehold the First of the Social Consumer Wars?

When we look back at the emergence of social media and The Groundswell, Operation Chokehold will most likely stand out as an important case study. On the one hand, it is an important example of customers taking whatever steps necessary to engage with their brand. On the other hand, however, it’s a sure lesson in missed social marketing opportunities.

First, a quick summary: A striking percentage of iPhone users are unhappy with their service via AT&T and angered by AT&T’s suggestions that a few “data hogs” are ruining the experience for everyone else. Here’s the common knowledge: their network was weak to begin with, they sold a ton of iPhones, and that in turn dragged down their quality of service even further. Fuel was added to the fire when Fake Steve Jobs suggested that iPhone users should protest by maxing out the data usage of their phones at a coordinated date and time in an effort to gut-punch the AT&T network. Despite the obvious satire that is Fake Steve, people are so fed up with AT&T that “Operation Chokehold” took on a life of its own.

Operation Chokehold has been discussed from a lot of angles. Keep in mind that I’m going to keep us focused on how this relates to social marketing…

Let’s begin with a quick look the technographic profiles of the “OC” audience. This recent study (pdf download) from Nielson confirms what most of us would assume: iPhone users overindex as young, educated, affluent, and tech-savvy. Safe assumption: the audience is higher up the technographic ladder.  So we have an audience that has enviable demo- and techno- graphics and a solid common cause. Sounds like a ripe opportunity for social marketing, right?

Well, it turns out that the actual event sort of fizzled. There are a few reasons for this, including 1) Fake Steve began to beg off a little, encouraging people instead to protest in front of physical Apple Stores, and 2) People really have better things to do. There is an important third reason, however:  Fake Steve (actually, Dan Lyons) is not a social marketer. If he were, he would have understood, via technographic profiling, that his audience requires more than being blogged at. They are high-functioning social networkers who need to be engaged. Two quick examples of what he could have done: Better promotion of the Operation Chokehold Facebook group that was set up by some loyal readers, and use of a “Fake Steve” Twitter account to build up suspense towards the main event. Both platforms would have met his socially-sophisticated audience’s needs for more robust interaction with each other and with Fake Steve himself. The lesson: Social events must be recognized for what they are and a methodology that begins with analysis must be applied. Without this, a situation with the right ingredients might still fail to build strong momentum.

We obviously don’t have real expectations for Fake Steve within Social Marketing. It’s not what he does. We’re just using his event as a case study here. So let’s move on to the second lesson of the day, which Operation Chokehold demonstrated quite well: Embrace your clients before they try to forcibly embrace you. Perhaps the best example of such “hostile embracing” was the crowdsourced army that poured over AT&T’s public records and published some findings that were quite contrary to official statements.

Despite the missed opportunities to leverage social marketing best practices, I believe that Fake Steve and Operation Chokehold will still force a brand with one of the biggest advertising budgets in America towards the customers’ desired course of action: I expect that some time in Q1 2010 AT&T will announce a new infrastructure improvement plan for major cities like New York.

When we talk about social marketing, I see a lot of organizations that seem to be trying to “get there,” as if setting up Twitter and Facebook profiles (as AT&T has done) are an end result. Social is young and evolving quickly, so this stunted understanding is forgivable, for now. Organizations must be prepared to react to what customers communicate via these channels, however, and AT&T is clearly not yet at that stage. Operation Chokehold is an early example, on a big scale, of the coming changes in brand/customer dynamics. It’s up to AT&T, and all of the brands that will surely follow, to fight this inevitable trend or to learn and embrace.