By Cathryn Atkinson and Melinda Wittstock
Trust, once lost, is hard to win back, as the Chinese computer giant Lenovo and its Silicon Valley “adware” partner Superfish have been learning to their immense cost.
After all, nothing lights up Twitter faster than a tech product gone bad – especially when it involves such an epic breach of trust.
When news broke on February 4th that Lenovo was pre-installing its laptops and smartphones with readily hackable adware that opened customers up to dangerous security and privacy breaches, the social media backlash was as swift and condemning as Lenovo’s glacial pace at delivering a non-apology apology.
Lenovo fell far, and fast, as angry customers amplified their betrayal to millions of their closest friends on Twitter and beyond. The top 10 Twitter influencers Tweeting about the Superfish “betrayal” actively engaged 75,328,719 people in just 16 days.
Incredibly, the company took exactly that long to respond, an eternity in social media terms. Once ranked by the Reputation Institute as one of the world’s most reputable companies, Lenovo didn’t respond to the Superfish mess until February 20th.
And when Lenovo did finally respond, there were only six Tweets from the company’s official @Lenovo handle, and only one of them, in a response to a customer’s direct challenge, said, “We apologize”. In fact, Lenovo initially defended the installation as a helpful tool for online shoppers before the furor made senior execs take notice.
Verifeed turned on the entire Twitter “firehose” for one month – from January 20 to February 22 – to analyze and pattern Tweets for a “before and after” portrait of what happens to good companies gone bad.
What we found was the volume of Tweets more than doubled once news broke of the Superfish malware, with 90,127 largely positive Tweets in the two weeks before Superfish and 136,284 mostly negative Tweets in the two weeks after.
The proportion of negative Tweets amplified across the social network via Re-Tweets grew almost three times as much after the breach of trust was revealed.
Think about this: With 2,175 Tweets between them, the top 10 influencers on the Superfish malware mess engaged more than 172,005,985 people who Re-Tweeted the overwhelmingly negative messages to their followers, who re-tweeted to their followers, and well, you get the picture.
To put this in perspective, before the malware news broke, Tweets about Lenovo were overwhelmingly positive – whether about its strong financial results announced February 3 or special offers, paid promotions and special offers being shared by upwards of 91 million on Twitter in the month analyzed by Verifeed.
Bad News Overshadows Good
The chatter varied from anger and insults, to straight news and information to help affected Lenovo customers. The Tweets and Retweets peaked on Feb. 20 and 21.
Or another way to look at it: 22 of the top 30 most shared Tweets in the two weeks before and after – those that inspired ongoing conversations and amplified to millions – were links to news articles in Wired, Slate and others lambasting Lenovo for Superfish.
“Lenovo’s Response to Its Dangerous Adware Is Astonishingly Clueless http://t.co/wnfc2X8W9F,” @newsycombinator Tweeted to engage 4,102,008 via Re-Tweets.
“The single worst thing I’ve seen a manufacturer do to its customer”. A furious dissection of the Lenovo scandal http://t.co/qDQ2ksTEDc”, @rhodri shared with 1,878,943.
“I try to express the sheer extremity of Lenovo’s customer betrayal with #Superfish. I still understate it.http://t.co/U9fxOJxKBi,” tech blogger and software engineer @AuerbachKeller to another 1,415,386.
As Lenovo’s reputation was being ravaged across all social media, blogging and traditional channels through the day on February 4, the company operated “business as usual”, continuing to run paid promoted Tweets, special offers and regular customer interactions.
Finally on February 20th, this Tweet from Lenovo:
RT @lenovoUS: @NeighborOfBrak @lenovo We sincerely apologize for this, & given your history w/ us, we hope you’ll give us chance to prove ourselves again.
Too little, too late, and now into March, the company catching up on apologies (a bit) while still being criticized by angry consumers.
How much the breach of trust will impact its bottom line, denting its $253m net profit in the quarter to December 2014, will be seen next quarter, likely a very costly mistake compared to the reported $250,000 it made from the deal to pre-install Superfish.
So what now for Lenovo?
How hard will it be to amplify positive steps taken by the chastened company on social media and repair the damage?
People who have placed the details of the most personal aspects of their lives on Lenovo computers will certainly think twice about whether Lenovo deserves their trust.
In an era where people live much of their personal and professional lives through their computers and mobile devices – and are quick to criticize on social media when it all goes wrong, companies should be cognizant the consumer is in the driving seat. Lose your reputation for trust – or fail to act fast to restore it – and the results will show up in the P&L.