Marketing Communications

A Case Study in Cracker Barrel: Rewriting the Rules for Social Media Moderation?

Originally published March 25th, 2017 for an assignment blog. 

Having a presence on social media (SM) can appear to be a necessity. If your target audience is searching for you and you're not there, chances are your competitors are going to be the ones popping up in your place. With this in mind, a business may seem to dive headfirst into SM, using only the experience they have had with their own personal pages. Most of the time if you just use common sense, there really isn't any harm done. If you're the pizza shop around the corner, the boutique clothing store, or maybe the local pub, common sense will go a long way. It's just another way to let your customers know about what's going on.

That being said, if you follow a publicly listed restaurant chain with 639 stores in United States, with a revenue of over 2.58 billion, you would have certain expectations for how they would act on social media. Firstly, you would probably assume they know a lot more about SM than you do. So when we see a large organisation do something we wouldn't, we are all pretty quick to judge. It is easy to point the finger and say "You're doing it wrong.", watch the fallout from their decisions and say "I could've done better" - especially if you manage/moderate social media for work. 

The emergence of Web 2.0 has seen opinions like these come out in full force. Not only are we saying we would've done it differently, but we make sure to let them know how badly they screwed up. There is no more one way communication, everything done on SM is two way. From the things you post, to the things you do, your stakeholders will be able to add their opinion to the view of others.

The Cracker Barrel incident demonstrates the full force of Web 2.0. It started off on Facebook when Brad Reid Byrd simply asked, "Why did you fire my wife?" to Cracker Barrel's official Facebook page. Understandably, they never gave reasons why (probably due to legal issues), but they never acknowledged Brad. The post blew up with advocates for Brad asking why his wife was fired. Now their SM is filled with people up in arms trying to get 'justice' for Brad's wife. Cracker Barrel, even two weeks after the incident, have still not responded. Here is a good example:

 Screenshot from Cracker Barrel's Facebook Page

Screenshot from Cracker Barrel's Facebook Page

An innocent post about pancakes. What could go wrong? Well, the post received over 19,000 comments. And after reading over a thousand of them, I was having trouble finding a post that had anything to do with pancakes.

 Even the recipe posted for 'Mixed Berry Pancakes' require the tears of Brad's wife as an ingredient. Screenshot from Cracker Barrel's Facebook.

Even the recipe posted for 'Mixed Berry Pancakes' require the tears of Brad's wife as an ingredient. Screenshot from Cracker Barrel's Facebook.

This situation could have totally have been avoided. As soon as the topic started ramping up, Cracker Barrel could have just merely acknowledged that they were maybe looking into the issue, or trying to see what happened. After all, going silent is simply unacceptable from organisations in crisis, it's pretty much textbook what not do in crisis management theory. Their silence has escalated something that was potentially small and harmless, to derailing their entire SM efforts. We can see it on their official Instagram too:

 Screen shot of Cracker Barrel's Instagram.

Screen shot of Cracker Barrel's Instagram.

And even Twitter:

 Compilation from Tweet Reach.

Compilation from Tweet Reach.

Brad's wife is still a trending topic on social media. However it should be noted, that it is dying down. If we take a look at Google Trends, we can see it is starting to settle:

 Data from Google Trends.

Data from Google Trends.

First impressions is that Cracker Barrel has shown exactly what not to do when dealing with a potential crisis that can spiral out of control. But we need to still remember that SM is still incredibly young relative to traditional communication channels. Facebook and Twitter have both only been open to the public for a little over 10 years. Instagram, launched in 2010, making it less than a decade old. The young age of SM makes it the wild west of communications. There are countless academic journals, how to books for utilising SM, and theories that try to portray an understanding of the platform but these theories and guides are changing all the time. Even professionals don't have it completely figured out. However, it would be remiss to think that Cracker Barrel have abandoned strategy all together.

Only they know if this crisis has even affected their sales or bottom line, and it is yet to be seen if this whole fiasco has even affected their stock price. The strategy of silence is a new one in the online space. However it seems Cracker Barrel is intent on waiting it out, not providing a single acknowledgement to the crisis at all. Regardless, this crisis is going to provide a great case study depending on the outcome. Will it show that huge viral crises can potentially have no negative affect to the actual business? Is the online crusading for Brad's wife just Kony 2012 levels of slacktivism? A company this large not even issuing a corporate statement due to a SM crisis is unprecedented. Has Cracker Barrel rewritten the book for social media crisis communications? 

Update May 27th, 2017: Cracker Barrel have still not responded and their content is still being hijacked with Brad's wife comments.

Update August 23rd, 2017: Brad's wife comments are actually dying down with some users even telling others to "get over it". Very interested in how this is going to play out. 

The Prototype Process, Part 1: A Better PTV App

The layout of a better designed app.

It's astounding how many apps you use only to ask yourself "Seriously, who designed this?" In Melbourne, the most guilty culprits are the Public Transport Victoria (PTV) app and tramTRACKER. These apps are devoid from any actual user feedback or input. These apps are not designed by asking us "What kind of app would you like to help you get from point A to B" but rather "This is how you get from point A to B". Today in the age of Web 2.0, the public has empowerment in how they want to use their technology, and successful applications have embraced the democratization of creating new technologies (Beer, p986), PTV and tramTRACKER seem to be unaware of this. 

Think of Uber, an app that practically exists as a protest against the substandard service of Taxis. Taxis were the ones saying "This is how you get form point A to B" and Uber asked us how we actually would like to do it. Web 2.0 signalled the shift to user-created content (Beer, p986) and showed us that creating without the input of your users is to lack empathy, and a lack of empathy makes for an incredibly frustrating consumer experience. 

We use the PTV app and tramTRACKER because we have to, not because we want to. It is a shame that the developers probably didn't even ask themselves "Would I be happy using this application?". But why would they need to? They don't have competition. They don't even need to redesign their app, so I did it for them.

In rush to catch a tram? You're going to love all the popups that get in the way of critical info. Screenshot from tramTRACKER

In order to redesign the app, I wanted to apply a framework that would guide me into a human centered design approach. For this I followed the Institute for Design at Stanford's guide into design thinking where I used their formula of:

  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test 

Doing the first 3 steps showed me what people wanted was:

  1. A centralised, all inclusive PTV app 
  2. Ability to top up a myki instantly using the app
  3. A street view visualisation of stops in real time
  4. A street view visualisation for getting from one stop to another
  5. No popups, decluttering, less bloated design 
  6. Relevant landing page

Now I was ready to design a rough prototype. 

Home page / Landing page

Above is the home page / landing page of the application. The first thing to note is the centralisation of the app. Everything public transport related is contained in this app alone. The top icons are trackers for each individual transport vehicle, there is a page for everything myki related, and there is also a journey planner.

Only information relevant to the user is listed, these being the relevant disruptions of stops nearby, or disruptions of frequently used stops. One thing many people disliked about tramTRACKER is that it would notify you of irrelevant disruptions that had nothing to do with your travel patterns or area. There is also the option to click "Where would you like to go" as an option for a journey planner where the application would map options to get users to their destination.

Put in where you are (or use your mobile's gps) and put in where you want to go. 

 In addition to directions, a map is displayed to show you where the different stops are in real time to help with interchanges or just to illustrate the physical stop location.

In addition to directions, a map is displayed to show you where the different stops are in real time to help with interchanges or just to illustrate the physical stop location.

If you already know where you want to go and how you want to get there, simply tapping an icon at the top representing either the tram, train or bus and it will give you the relevant information you need.

An example of the tram page. Tapping a specific stop will show more arriving trams and their estimated arrival times.

When entering a custom stop, a visual representation of stops around you will appear to help guide the user to nearby stops. Users can also enter a stop by name or number to check real time arrivals.

One of the most requested features of the application is the ability to top up myki money in real time. It is bit backwards that you are able to instantly pay an on the spot fine for not having enough to pay for transport, but not able to rectify the problem without getting off the tram and heading to a physical location as topping up online takes 24 hours. The simple solution is to be able to check your balance before you get on, and top up right then and there if you don't have enough. It really should be that simple.

All relevant myki information, along with one click instant top up. 

Summary

This application re-design was all about taking two pre-existing applications (PTV and tramTRACKER), merging them together, and applying a human centered design approach to making it better. Improving the application would require some changes to infrastructure such as adding tracking capabilities for trains and buses and improving myki to allow for real time top ups, however these changes are possible and in order to make a better app are necessary. An app is only as good as the foundations it is built upon, and Victoria's public transport foundations do need to improve.

With populations increasing in the city by 3.2% annually, the number of those working in the city to increase by 2% annually, the amount of students in the city to increase 2.4% annually, regional visitors up 1.3% annually, and international visitors up 4.7% annually (City of Melbourne), there is going to be more strain and stress placed upon public transport. A more centralised app can help to mitigate these stresses and strains by allowing the flow of people in our cities to continue to move and make patterns predictable so further public transport infrastructure improvements can be made. 

In part 2, I go through the steps of creating a more targeted transport app and show how a working prototype was used to gather user feedback to refine the app. 

References:

Beer D, Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious, New Media and Society, vol. 11, no. 6, 2009

City of Melbourne, Daily Population Estimates and Forecasts Report 2015, http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/daily-population-estimates-and-forecasts-report-2015.pdf, Accessed Online March 24 2015

Wireframe prototypes created using FluidUI (fluidui.com)