Big name brands have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It lets them ‘engage’ consumers – but acts as a hub for criticism. Guy Montague-Jones reports

Facebook brings out the language of love in the big retailers and suppliers.

They want to use the social network to ‘reach out’ to consumers, ‘get closer’ to them and ‘listen to their needs’ but in doing so they must learn one of the oldest lessons in love: rejection.

It is not that companies have struggled to find followers on Facebook Tesco has attracted 260,000 people to its Facebook page in the past three months. The problem is that all too often these so-called ‘fans’ turn out not to be the most faithful of supporters. A snapshot survey by The Grocer last week found that more than a third of posts on Tesco’s Facebook wall were critical of the supermarket.

So what can retailers and brands do to make social media work for rather than against them?

The most obvious danger is that, on an open access community, people are free to publish negative comments. Last week, a backlash on Facebook against Twinings’ reformulation of Earl Grey tea illustrated this point. In some instances, such criticism can even take a product off shelves as in the US last year, when Frito-Lay temporarily withdrew its biodegradable crisp bags after 40,000 people signed up to a Facebook page to complain the packs were too noisy.

But retailers and brands should note that opinions expressed online do not necessarily reflect the prevailing view among consumers. In the case of Frito-Lay, after the offending bags had been withdrawn, another Facebook page sprang up calling on consumers to boycott Frito-Lay for turning its back on biodegradable packaging. And Twinings may be asking why given the volumes of complaints online sales of its Earl Grey tea are up significantly after the revamp.

The answer may be that consumers are increasingly taking to Facebook with the specific intention of venting discontent with companies. Waitrose believes this helps explain why its new delivery website has been the subject of so many complaints on Facebook. “Individual discontent does tend to be magnified on forums and social media,” says a spokeswoman.

Tesco, despite its hundreds of thousands of ‘fans’, felt the impact of this “discontent” when it posted a message on its Facebook page on 8 July, explaining why it was “inappropriate” for it to stop advertising in the News of the World. The message elicited 968 consumer responses, many of them negative.

So should companies abandon Facebook? Is setting up a page just a way of inviting bad press?

Daljit Bhurji, MD of the social media and PR agency Diffusion, believes a Facebook page can actually minimise bad publicity. Because consumers can create their own sites on Facebook to voice complaints about a company, having no official presence makes a company more exposed. Creating a Facebook page encourages negative feedback on to home turf.

“On your Facebook page you are in control,” says Bhurji. This means companies can, to some extent, contain criticism for instance, by creating a feedback area away from the main page and setting up a team to respond quickly to comments, redirecting negative ones and alerting management to potential PR disasters.

Having a presence on Facebook is not all about damage limitation, either. It can be used very successfully to build awareness and drive sales. Tesco, for example, uses Facebook as a competitive tool, offering fans the chance to hear first about its promotions. Others use it to encourage consumers to ‘engage’ for example, Jelly Belly has made its page a hub for recipes, competitions and artwork.

“Such is its range of tools that Facebook is something of a Swiss Army knife and with half the UK population on it, there are few brands that can afford not to be there,” claims Bhurji.

Companies must remember, though, that there is no direct correlation between fan numbers and social media prowess. A recent survey of the 10 retailers with the largest Facebook followings of which M&S was the only food retailer found big disparities in how well they used social media. Survey author Conversocial praised M&S for responding swiftly to posts and showing “dedication to social customer care”.

But it criticised others including Amazon, which didn’t ­respond to comments and mainly used the site to post adverts.

How the food retailers compare on Facebook

343,069 Marks & Spencer fans
286,761 Tesco ­fans
138,299 Sainsbury’s fans