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When websites crash: How big brands avoid disaster

When websites crash: How big brands avoid disaster David Clarke

Friday, August 16, 2013, 6:56 p.m.
"Google is down? Did we reach the edge of the internet?" tweeted writer Vanessa Schneider.

Google crashed for five minutes between approximately 6:52 p.m. and 6:57 p.m. In those five minutes, according to analytics firm GoSquared, Google's outage caused a 40 percent fall in online traffic globally. Did users turn to alternatives Bing or Yahoo? No. Users turned to Twitter to talk about it.

When websites crash: How big brands avoid disaster

In that short five-minute window, the average tweets per minute jumped from around 200 to more than 1,000. 

When websites crash: How big brands avoid disaster

Twitter continues to prove it is the pre-eminent tool to share real-time experiences and disseminate news online. That's why it's crucial for brands that face an unexpected obstacle -- like an outage -- to stay ahead of the story by communicating information as it happens.

Google said it received reports of an issue that affected some of its services and assured users that the issue had been resolved. The company's brief statement advised readers to review the Google Apps Status Dashboard for additional information. There was no explanation given for the outage and Google did not comment further, electing to put this behind the company quickly and move forward. Google did not lose in the realm of public opinion for two reasons: It fixed the problem immediately and this was its first crash since 2009, which affords the company an incredible amount of leeway. 

Alternate way to reach readers in the moment

Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 10:00 a.m.
The New York Times website went down for three hours in what was later attributed to "an internal issue." Almost an hour later, the New York Times tweeted, "The New York Times Web site is experiencing technical difficulties. We expect to be back up shortly."

But that didn't stop the company from posting breaking news. The outage happened during unrest in Egypt, so the newspaper began tweeting updates:

Morsi supporters carry an injured comrade during clashes Wednesday in Cairo (Photo by Narciso Contreras for NYT) http://twitpic.com/d8b6it -- @nytimesworld, 1:46 p.m. 14 August 2013

The publication also encouraged readers to follow its reporters' Twitter accounts:

We are having technical problems on http://nytimes.com - please follow @RobertMackey for Twitter updates on Egypt crackdown. -- @thelede, 11:21 a.m. 14 August 2013

The New York Times smartly began publishing several news stories on Facebook in their entirety, including this dispatch on the latest political violence in Egypt.

Not only did the New York Times use social to let its readers know what was going on, it also used social to continue to meet its customers' needs without interruption. 

Acknowledging the problem and reassuring customers

Sunday, August 25, 2013, 1:00 p.m.
Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the world's largest cloud providers, crashed for 59 minutes. When AWS went down, it took Vine and Instragram with it. The reaction on Twitter was swift, as tweets began pouring in.

Instagram & Vine are down. What am I going to do with my life now-- @ArianaGoofy, 4:26 p.m. 25 August 2013

Instagram, which has the tenth biggest Twitter following on the internet with more than 26 million followers (placing them one spot behind Justin Timberlake and six spots ahead of Oprah), leveraged Twitter to reach its users by tweeting the following almost immediately:

We know many of you are having trouble loading Instagram. We identified the issue and are working to fix it ASAP. Thanks for holding on. -- Instagram (@instagram) August 25, 2013

Vine, with four million followers, followed suit a half hour later tweeting:

We're aware of some issues affecting our servers and are working to address them now. Thanks for your patience and hang tight! -- Vine (@vineapp), 5:20 p.m. 25 August 2013

The outage was relatively brief, but because Amazon is the cloud computing engine behind so many sites, the outage attracted plenty of attention on social media. People who were enjoying one of their last summer weekends suddenly found themselves unable to take pictures of their picnic baskets, friends and family, and, most importantly, their food. Instagram and Vine threw themselves in front of the problem, owned it, and likely squashed a lot of the potential speculation and ill will from its customers.

What we can learn from a comedy site

Tuesday, August 27, 2013, 3 p.m.  
A group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army caused another outage for the New York Times site. The same group claimed responsibility for hacking the Washington Post in mid-August. The Times directed readers who couldn't access the home page to an alternate site and the Post released a brief statement confirming the hack. 

You may have first heard of the Syrian Electronic Army in May, when they hacked the Twitter accounts of, among others, CBS News, the BBC, and the Associated Press. None of the major outlets shared any significant details of the hacks. Funny enough, the "news" source that navigated the Twitter hack best is not a news source at all. Satirical site The Onion had its Twitter account hacked along with the other major news sources. Instead of following the lead of its real news cousins and saying nothing, it chose to do the complete opposite. The Onion's tech team published a fairly detailed overview on their tech blog of what happened and how it happened.

And then, of course, in a communication more typical for The Onion, they poked fun at the situation. 

By lifting up the curtain and being completely transparent, The Onion's tech team allowed others to learn from their mistakes and hopefully grow. The Onion was widely praised for its handling of the situation.

Retain customers by including them in the conversation

People are going to discuss your brand on social and expect you to listen. This is particularly true when brands face an unexpected challenge, as Google, Instragram, Vine, the New York Times, and The Onion can attest. It's easy to communicate with your customers when everything is great. But when you are transparent with your customers during challenging situations and keep them in the loop, you have an opportunity to create brand advocates.

Companies that have utilized social to get in front of and steer the message have generally avoided bad PR. Equally as important, acknowledging a problem through social demonstrates to customers that you respect them enough to keep them informed. 

If you're not monitoring social, you do not know the overall sentiment of your customer base, you don't know what people are talking about in your industry, and you don't know what social channels they want to use to engage with you. At the bare minimum, you must at least be listening. If something blows up, regardless of whether your social program is overseen by an in-house team or an agency, make sure it's being handled by experienced individuals who can keep your customers informed.

Brands that understand the power of social customer relationship management and the business insights it can offer are the brands that can handle a difficult situation most effectively. 

David Clarke is the CEO and co-founder of BGT.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Exhausted businessman" image via Shutterstock.

David is the PwC Chief Experience Officer(CXO), a Principal in Digital Services and the Leader of the Experience Center. David combines the best of agency and consultancy to create ideal experiences that transform our world. Since 1996, David has...

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