How 3 Unforgivable Community Management Mistakes Cost Pokémon GO Millions in Active Users

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August 09,2016 by
Suzi Nelson

Something interesting happened with the folks at Pokémon GO recently.

They screwed up, and droves of customers are demanding refunds.

The game’s developer, Niantic Labs, introduced an update on July 30, 2016 that, among other changes, removed a buggy (yet some passionate players would argue critical) feature. Around the same time, they sent cease-and-desist letters to third-party developers that stepped in to offer solutions to the buggy feature.

That, in and of itself, is not the problem. Products get changed and updated all the time. Features come and go, and there usually isn’t earth-shattering fallout from customers. Third-party developers may or may not be ­welcomed to chip in.

So what did Niantic Labs do wrong?

They did nothing.

And customers have been taking to social media with a vengeance to express their displeasure.

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The social telephone has been ringing off the hook… and no one from Niantic Labs is answering.

As DigitalMarketer’s community manager, I’ll be breaking down the three huge mistakes that Niantic Labs made with their community and how they could have handled it better, so you can learn from Niantic Labs’ mistakes.

Before we dive in, there’s a ironic fact surrounding this entire situation — online communities and community management took off in popularity thanks to the gaming industry. Gamers are a passionate bunch, and the gaming industry was arguably the first to harness the power of community — not only empowering players to connect with each other, but using community as a powerful tool to inform product development.

At this point, gamers expect a community, and are quick to band together all across the giant sphere of social media networks. And when they are angry, the fallout can be costly if the situation isn’t handled with care.

So let’s go over the fallout:

  • Pokémon GO lost about 3 million active users
  • Customers are demanding refunds of in-app purchases…
  • A plethora of one-star reviews on iTunes and Google Play…
  • One very, very unhappy community…

…Yikes.

The sad thing is, this all could have been avoided with a commitment to community management. Let’s break it down.

Pokémon GO Community Mistake #1: A Slow, Semi-Transparent Response

Tweets, Facebook posts, Reddit conversations and all those 1-star reviews began popping up as soon as the update went out on Saturday, July 30 in the evening. Blog posts began sprouting up by Monday morning, citing the growing social media response and the lack of communication by Niantic.

From what I can gather, Niantic didn’t respond to a single customer message. The only response was made on their public Facebook page at 1:19pm on Tuesday afternoon, when most of the damage was already done:

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The underwhelming statement largely lacked the transparency that players were vocally demanding:

  • Why was the tracking feature removed?
  • Is it coming back?
  • Why remove a buggy feature while discouraging third-parties who have made it work?
  • Does anyone at Niantic care at all about how upset everyone is? You’ve read the posts but chose not to respond?

Take a look at these real responses to this official response (none of which had replies from the admin):

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Many more comments indicated that players loved the game and were willing to be brand advocates… if only they had more meaningful communication from the company.

(If you want a good look at what an angry community looks like, check out the rest of the comments on Niantic’s post).

How Niantic Should’ve Handled It: Let People Know They’ve Been Heard

If you are facing angry customers on social media, the best practice is to respond as soon as you know if there is a problem – or proactively, if you know your product changes will upset a lot of people. Twenty-four hours is an eternity in internet time, and three days for any sort of company response is just asking for trouble.

Niantic could have used a dedicated social media manager (or community manager!) to dive into as many customer responses as possible as soon as the update was released… or, at the very least, as soon as they noticed a change in sentiment levels on the social web.

Here at DigitalMarketer, we use…

The 3-Step Social Customer Service Plan

Step 1: Respond in a Timely Manner

Niantic Labs gets zero points for quick response. Consider the stats from Forrester, who determined that 77% of adults in the US say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service.

Our social media manager is trained to respond to any and all customer service issues on the social web with a “you’ve been heard” response within 12 hours, and a resolution within 24 hours (quicker, if we can – especially if it’s on Twitter, where time seems to move at lightning speed). This is where feedback loops really come into play, but more on that in a bit.

It doesn’t take much to provide awesome customer care on social media, even if you can’t resolve problems right away. A simple, “We hear you, we know it’s upsetting, and we’re working on it!” would have gone a long way to ease a consumer’s mind.

Step 2: Be Empathetic

Empathy is agreeing you’d feel the same way in someone else’s shoes.

It means you are not a robot, so a canned response will just make it sound like you aren’t hearing the customer, which won’t help to diffuse the situation. Making a statement of empathy when you are addressing customer care issues on the social web goes a heck of a long way in easing the tension.

Here are some examples of empathetic statements:

  • “I know how important it is to be able to [blank]…”
  • “We understand that you had a bad experience….”
  • “We are so sorry to have caused you an inconvenience…”

Empathy aligns yourself with the customer’s point of view, and avoids situations like this:

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Three responses from Bank of America to customer issues were, word-for-word, exactly the same.

I’m not completely convinced “^sa” is an actual, human person and not some sort of automated system. Empathic statements make people feel heard and valued; that their issue matters to you as much as it matters to them.

Step 3: Move the Conversation to a Private Channel

For individual customer care issues that can’t be answered in one short response, move it to a private channel as soon as possible.

This is a great move for several reasons:

  • Issues are much easier to address when it’s one-on-one, not in a public post where anyone with an internet connection can weigh in…
  • Giving customers individual attention makes them feel more appreciated…
  • Customer care issues can often involve private information like e-mail addresses and credit card info. It’s a safety thing!

Any company with a solid social customer service plan will use this plan, as Lowes expertly does here…

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Lowe’s actually has a dedicated website to categorize and address customer care issues. They responded quickly, made an empathy statement, and pointed the customer to the resource that will help them get the resolution they need.

Here’s another example from Hilton Hotels:

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Now if you have a full-blown public relations crisis where thousands of people have the same complaint, it is perfectly OK to make a blanket statement (if its timely, empathetic, and transparent) to address the issue. Your social media manager or community manager can still implement this 3-step plan – replying quickly, aligning themselves with the customers, and pointing back to the company’s statement as the resolution.

The moral of the story here is be open and empathetic. And for the love of all that is righteous in the world, let your customers know that you hear them.

(NOTE:  Don’t let your community go unheard. Grade your social efforts with this simple audit and identify opportunities to get more followers, increase engagement, and drive more traffic. Get our free download here.)

Pokémon GO Community Mistake #2: No Brand Loyalty

Niantic Labs has been around since 2010, and unfortunately has a history of ignoring customer feedback.

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You’ve probably heard our CEO, Ryan Deiss, talk about how businesses should serve a market and not a product – that you should define your business by the people you serve. This is doubly true to connecting with and empowering your community.

People who are loyal to a specific product that underwhelms (or in this case, breaks down completely) are quicker to turn against the company that created it if there is not a strong relationship between the consumer and the brand in the first place.

If Niantic had spent time and effort building up a loyal community base to begin with, those customers would be more forgiving when the proverbial crap hit the fan.

Take, for instance, how consumers responded to the 2015 public relations crisis that happened with Blue Bell Creameries, an American ice cream manufacturer.

When Blue Bell discovered that one of their plants had produced products that tested positive for a dangerous bacterium, they immediately put out a press release and pulled any at-risk products. Once the media publicized the press release and the story was amplified, stores all across the south were pulling all Blue Bell products from the shelves. Factories shut down for cleaning and jobs were lost.

PR nightmare, right?

Blue Bell did a lot of things right in the aftermath: constant communication with the press and their fans, never downplaying the issue, and making sure everyone felt heard.

But because they also have spent years developing a strong community around their brand, the internet responded with overwhelming support and a healthy dose of snark:

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Support wasn’t limited to online communities. Fans held rallies and prayer vigils on courthouse steps. People just didn’t love their ice cream – they really, really loved Blue Bell ice cream.

How Niantic Should’ve Handled It: Commitment to Community Management

The hard truth is that even if Niantic Labs had responded to every single customer service issue perfectly over the weekend, it still wouldn’t make up for the fact that they should have had a STRONG focus on community before the crisis happened.

At one point, the company did have a Global Community Manager. His name is Brian Rose, and he has since moved on to another company (and to Niantic’s credit, they are actively seeking a replacement).

Over the weekend, Rose sent some powerful tweets aimed at educating his former employer on proper community management:

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I get it, Niantic Labs. I really do. Community is a long game. It is not something that comes quickly or easily.

It’s much easier to put your head down and make what you think your community wants than it is to gather them up, establish strong relationships, create a safe space for two-way feedback, and make sure everyone feels heard. That’s hard, time-consuming work.

But embracing your community on the social web pays off in the end. Consider these statistics:

  • 56% of Americans who are part of a social brand community are more loyal to the brand. (Convince & Convert)
  • 86% of Fortune 500 companies report communities provide insight into customer needs. (Sector Intelligence)
  • 86% of companies see the value that customer collaboration presents for the marketing department. (Oracle)
  • Failure to respond to customers on social media can lead to a 15% increase in churn rate for existing customers. (Gartner)
  • When companies respond to customer service issues on the social web, those customers end up spending 20% – 40% more with the company. (Bain & Company)

It’s safe to say that if you are not responding to your community on the social web is costing you money – both from potential and existing customers. While Niantic Labs might survive the hit it took over the weekend, they have needlessly lost big bucks due to inaction.

Pokémon GO Community Mistake #3: No Social Listening

In the same vein as community building, social listening (an aspect of both social management and community management) is extremely helpful in product development.

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Niantic Labs’ community members have great ideas for improving the product and are voicing those golden nuggets all over the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, some have spun out and created those third-party platforms to work around the app’s glitches – but the response of the company has either been deafening silence or a letter from their lawyer.

Don’t get me wrong: Protecting intellectual property is completely acceptable. But if you’re shutting down community-produced content that addresses a pain point, it’s best practice to communicate that you’re dedicated to fixing the issue.

That’s called reputation management.

How could Niantic Labs have let their customers know that they are listening and addressing product issues while protecting their app at the same time?

How Niantic Should’ve Handled It: Implement Solid Feedback Loop

Once again, putting in place a dedicated social media manager or community manager who is in charge of combing through the plethora of comments, posts, and tweets and responding to as many as they can – and implementing a system of feedback loops so customers feel heard is essential.

In a sense, each time a company takes the time to address issues (issues like the kind Niantic is facing right now), it means they are making a deposit into a customer or prospect’s relational equity account. The stronger your equity, the more you can ask from your customer – whether that be their money or their patience during a failure.

Here’s how feedback loops are set up here at DigitalMarketer…

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We have found this system has helped us respond quickly and efficiently to customer service issues on the social web — we have someone who is dedicated to listening to the social web using a handy tool called Mention, and a procedure in place for making sure issues are responded to in a timely manner.

It’s not just helpful, it’s a priority. It makes sure that someone your team is uniquely responsible for…

  • actively listening to customer complaints on the social web…
  • communicating with those customers…
  • routing the issue to the right team…
  • resolving the issue within the given time frame…

We’ve found these feedback loops not only help resolve customer service issues, but help us to identify and catalog gaps in our content and products.

For a deep dive into how to use Feedback Loops, check out this blog post.

Before I get off my soapbox, I want to stress the importance of community management as you grow a brand.

Nurturing and empowering your community will take your customers and potential leads from a passive audience to an active, engaged, and loyal community of brand advocates. This will help your brand weather storms and avoid the severe backlash Niantic Labs is facing.

(NOTE:  Don’t let your community go unheard. Grade your social efforts with this simple audit and identify opportunities to get more followers, increase engagement, and drive more traffic. Get our free download here.)


Suzi Nelson

About Suzi Nelson

Suzi Nelson is the Community Manager at DigitalMarketer. She has a degree in Journalism (Strategic Communications) from the University of Kansas and is an avid defender of the oxford comma. You can find Suzi connecting with our customers and followers across any of DigitalMarketer's social profiles, and in our DM Lab Facebook mastermind group, DM Engage. Connect with her on Facebook.

View all Posts by Suzi Nelson