For those of you unfamiliar with the #amazonfail phenomenon, here it is in a nutshell:
Hundreds of gay-and lesbian-themed books suddenly disappeared from Amazon.com’s rankings over the weekend, causing an uproar among authors and activists who alleged it was a stealthy extension of the company’s policy concerning adult content. The internet bookseller claimed it was the result of a technical “glitch.”
. This incident happened at lightspeed over the Easter weekend – 36 hours from initial post to hitting a blog on the Wall Street Journal, and then today the Technology section of the paper itself (that’s less than 60 hours from consumer complaint to mainstream media story).
There was a time when one might have the luxury of four or five days before a blogstorm hit a mainstream publication with a mainstream audience. No longer.
Timelines are condensing.
The reason why is Twitter. Unlike a blog post, which realistically would take me anywhere between an hour and an hour and a half to write and research, I can tweet something (with a link to original source material) in about five seconds. To over 4,000 people. Additionally, those people are ambiently consuming the information I have posted in real time, on mobile devices via apps like Tweetie and on their desktop via clients like Tweetdeck. Both of these services are designed for maximum information intake. A very different mode of consumption from from a blog post which I would expect most people to read via a feedreader they check perhaps once a day.
It’s a viral platform.
Replies on Twitter (unless sent by private direct message) are public – they are distributed to a broader network, and the whole conversation is visible to thousands of people who may choose to engage and forward it on to their own networks. When something catches fire, it’s exponentially viral on Twitter – I’m not simply emailing it one to one to my friends, I am literally broadcasting it to hundreds or even thousands of people who have subscribed to my content. If they like the information, they may do the same, and so on, and so on…
Amazon was less than forthcoming initially, but has since released a well-worded mea culpa from Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith that stated,
This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.
It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.
Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.
Does it Matter?
Sure, it matters right now, no question – Amazon has suffered a blow to their corporate reputation. There have been over 300 articles about the incident in mainstream publications. Therefore the question of the moment is how well are today’s Corporate Communications departments prepared to deal with this dramatic acceleration in crisis communications timelines (I’d answer not well – someone senior enough to respond would have to be living online 24/7 to have caught this).
But here’s a question for six months from now: if dramatic incidents like this become commonplace because of things like Twitter, will it still matter from a corporate reputation perspective? In other words, if the media doesn’t report on it, making it visible to an audience broader than the estimated six to nine million Twitter users (not all of whom are active or even paying attention), is a Twitterstorm big enough to actually matter?