The disruption of Eurostar’s train traffic in the “Chunnel” last week holds a valuable lesson for those intent on leveraging social media to communicate with customers: the biggest risk is not in diving too deep…but not deep enough.

In the aftermath of the crisis the communication folks at Eurostar admitted that their social media programs – focused narrowly on push marketing activities – were of limited use to communicate with customers during the crisis. They are planning to totally rethink their social media approach in 2010. Apparently, Eurostar’s various platforms (notably on Facebook and Twitter) were not set up to manage a robust Q&A with customers but rather to promote its “Little break, big difference” campaign. Eurostar made the best of the situation and leveraged their existing marketing platforms, but frustrated customers had to hunt for Eurostar updates (including the CEO’s apology on the “Little Break” website.) Hard to believe, but Eurostar and Eurostar-UK Twitter handles were not formal company channels. The company eventually put an apology letter from the CEO on its corporate website. Needless to say, the vacuum of official Eurostar information and real-time updates compared unfavorably with the torrent of complaints and speculation by customers and interested observers.

There are several valuable lessons on social media engagement here for communication professionals:

  • Don’t make it hard for customers to find you…or talk to you…or ask questions. Eurostar’s platforms were either dormant, irrelevant, silent or branded with obscure marketing names the average customer would never have heard.
  • Make sure you are prepared to quickly get out your message where the conservation is occurring…not just your own platforms (even if they are excellent).  With real-time search and mobile updates its critical to quickly fill the information vacuum during a crisis.
  • Be careful to limit and/or silo your social media strategy. Having marketing as the lead manager proved disastrous for Eurostar. Ideally, any program should be fully integrated and managed by a cross-functional team. Branding, messaging and technology should be aligned and complementary.
  • Do a good inventory of all relevant pages/sites on major social networks – which typically unearths a number of rogue corporate and employee sites – and implement a strategy to inject a formal presence in the mix.
  • Remember that social media platforms by definition are about conversation – not just pushing information. So learn to listen and respond…all the time.
  • Don’t ignore the critical role – and potential reach – of traditional media channels, which can also help get key messages and updates out. Eurostar CEO comments were featured on BBC updates – but not soon enough for stranded passengers.
  • Have a clear policy for employee online behavior and commentary. Some of the comments I saw on Twitter and Facebook appear to be Eurostar employees, but it’s not clear if they are speaking as observers or in a formal role. Furthermore, their comments are decidedly mixed.

Ultimately, the biggest lesson here is that social media is too prominent in the communication (and marketing) mix to leave as an after-thought or one-shot marketing campaign. Companies that dip their toes rather than take the plunge do so at their own peril.