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The Day We Trended: Incident Management and the Social Connection

The Day We Trended

Some companies would call it a PR crisis: 17,000 tweets maligning a fifteen-year-old brand coveted by creative communities and anti-establishment types. The slight, in the eyes of these Twitter users, was giving into a corporate buy: (mt) Media Temple had just been acquired by GoDaddy and the news was breaking.

For our support social media team, this was a daunting challenge with a higher-volume turnout than we had anticipated, but it also represented a remarkable opportunity to communicate. The air was charged on the day of the announcement, but with excitement rather than dread. This much attention, after all, let us cast public eyes on what we had been doing well, and reassure our customers that we weren’t going anywhere as the two companies kept operating independently. It also let our new friends at GoDaddy share the story of their remarkable turnaround, a story still very much in progress.

Our team worked diligently throughout the day, deputizing new “tweetologists” and answering as many of the tweets as humanly possible for such a small staff. We focused on the active discussions and human components of the Twitter firestorm rather than aiming to “engage” every news report, bot, and retweet we encountered. We made sure that our customers knew they were being heard.

Straight-Up Pays Forward

We will always take pride in having participated so much in the discussion that fateful day, but it was the live Google Hangout that we organized the next day with our departing founder -- Demian Sellfors -- and our President Russell P. Reeder, that allowed us to control the message. Within a week, negative chatter about the acquisition had simmered, and we remained on course to exactly where we needed to be.

The Hangout was unscripted and casual, with customer questions answered directly by the guys at the top. The simple philosophy behind this approach guides us in managing any large-scale incident: Be honest and real with people. We try our best to steer clear of spin when something goes awry, put ourselves in our customers’ shoes, and “tell it like it is” in a professional but empathetic voice.

Downtime and Responsiveness

Why do we take this approach? Lessons learned. In our infancy, we lacked the tools needed to manage the occasional outage, and had to learn and build from scratch. Our Incident Management strategy is built from experience, and our early stumbling blocks served as bricks in the foundation.

In the early days of our startup phase, we stumbled quite a bit technically with our custom-built architecture -- and with managing these setbacks. When services would go down, we would simply be overwhelmed at both the support and incident management level; our chief communicators would be focusing on communicating internally, and customers would often rely on their own eyes and ears to see if service had been restored yet. However, we saw that this was untenable and made profound changes toward better and more open communications.

To that end, we reduced service downtime to nearly non-existent levels in the past three years. During this period of fewer outages, we’ve actually become more responsive and public about any incidents involving downtime. The key to this success is the designation of a full-time Incident Management Coordinator, who trains and grooms a team of advanced agents to manage both internal and external communications.

Investment Matters, But Empathy is King

Resources have also been devoted to improving this process further at the systems and workflow level. We diligently communicate even a fleeting reboot of a system service during a maintenance window and track internally issues that we suspect have arisen from recent changes (if we can find a common thread to alert our customers to, we will then take the tracking “incident” to a public stage). We have also developed and enhanced mass ticketing tools, incident management software, and a more responsive public status blog to maximize communication.

The ability to communicate effectively during incidents deflects potential support interactions that would otherwise waste more time and energy for our customers and us. We have learned time and time again that a proactive approach saves us considerable trouble, and a reactive one hurts us. Our partners in engineering have also done their part by keeping our services streamlined and running, but the lessons we learned early on still apply: Be as honest as possible, play it “straight-up,” and convey empathy to those affected.

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