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British Gas and the Hashtag Hijack

Last week British Gas found itself in the middle of a social media PR nightmare.

The company had already announced that energy prices would be set to increase by 9.2%. It then decided to conduct a Q & A session via Twitter, with customer services director Bert Pijls fielding questions posted under the #AskBG hashtag.

Unfortunately for British Gas, the move backfired spectacularly. #AskBG was quickly trending, but for all the wrong reasons. The social network was quickly inundated with comments ranging in tone from mild sarcasm to outright fury. It was always going to be difficult for the energy company to increase prices during a time of economic uncertainty, but by using Twitter as a feedback mechanism British Gas walked straight into a social media disaster:

“I’m having to burn all the junk mail you send me in order to keep warm #AskBG” @wolftic

“Hi Bert, which items of furniture do you, in your humble opinion, think people should burn first this winter? #AskBG @leejamesvincent

“Will you be sacrificing your social media team for fuel this winter? #AskBG” @steveplrose

Social Media and Customer Services

The great irony is that by announcing a Twitter Q & A British Gas had demonstrated their understanding of the importance of social media in their customer services strategy.

The reality is that an increasing percentage of consumers are taking to Facebook and Twitter to register their dissatisfaction with a product or service. It’s a powerful way to get a rapid response – particularly if customer services helplines are proving unhelpful – particularly if you’ve got lots of followers or have clout in a certain industry.

British Gas rightly understood that people would be taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure about the 9.2% increase in prices. They correctly positioned their best employees to respond to these complaints.

However, their biggest mistake was using the #AskBG hashtag.

Twitter is a great way for a company to interact with customers and find out what people are thinking about your products and services. It’s also a great way to offer immediate customer service and diffuse potentially hostile situations early on. However, by adding a hashtag British Gas set themselves up for a fall. If they had simply replied directly to a few hundred angry customers to explain the reasons behind the increases, this might have been more effective.

However, the #AskBG hashtag, which was intended to make communicating with British Gas more straightforward, simply allowed disgruntled customers a more prominent platform to voice their anger. When the pun-artists and social media aficionados joined in, there was only ever going to be one outcome.

British Gas aren’t the only company to have experienced a damaging hashtag hijack. Mashable have produced a list of 8 other hashtag-hijacks that have happened to multinational brands including McDonalds, Walgreens and Quantas Airlines.

We’d encourage you to learn from British Gas and the hashtag hijack. Social Media is a powerful tool that gives you an unrivaled opportunity to connect with customers – even angry ones – and increase the exposure of your business. It just takes a little bit of wisdom and strategy to get it right…