/ Technology

Our social media journey – will you join us?

Which? launched its first website (and forum) in 1996. That’s two years before you could even search for that site on Google. We might have been an early mover on the web, but we were slower in the social media game.

We launched our first Twitter handle in 2009, our Facebook page in 2011, hired our first Social Media Manager in 2012, and only joined Instagram in 2018. I joined Which? in 2010, the same year Which? Conversation came onto the scene too. I’m sure there’s a connection somewhere…

Over the years we’ve used social media creatively for campaigning and content promotion. But we had become a little complacent and began to focus too much on driving people to our website.

We had lost sight of the inherent value of social media: to reach, connect with and build highly engaged communities. In that sense, it’s very similar to what we do here on Which? Convo.

A new approach

Last year we reset our strategy. We knew we had all the essential ingredients to thrive on social media. We’re on the consumers’ side. We provide solutions to people’s problems. And we make the difficult simple. These are all valuable and engaging messages to bring to the millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…

Close to half the world’s population is on at least one social media platform. Half of the UK’s population is on Facebook alone. Of course, our social following is a little more modest than that. We have 150,000 followers between our two most popular accounts, Facebook and Twitter. It might not sound like much, but it’s 50,000 more than last year.

Some of you might be thinking that just because lots of people are on social media, that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to be. Let’s stick with that thought for a little bit, and expand on it. Is social media a force for good? I can speak from personal experience and say that some days I feel it enriches my life. Other days it detracts from it.

Social media can make it easier to stay in touch with those close to you, but it can also make you feel further away from them too. Together and alone.

Fake news, fake reviews

Then there’s the misinformation that’s propagated across social channels. In a speech made today, Prince William said that ‘the tools that we use to congratulate each other on milestones and successes can also be used to normalise speech that is filled with bile and hate. The websites we use to stay connected can for some create profound feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.’

In many ways Which? can be an antidote to the misinformation epidemic on social media. Take our recent warning around fake reviews. Our undercover investigation, among other things, found a network of Facebook groups set up to reimburse shoppers for Amazon purchases in exchange for positive reviews and more.

We now have a renewed social (media) mission to help consumers wherever and whenever they need us. With scams on the rise, dangerous products threatening the safety of people’s homes, these are warnings we’re taking to Facebook and Twitter. Our followers then share these with thousands more people, which hopefully means their friends and family are that little bit safer too.

Keeping a look out

Lots of people use Twitter, me included, to complain to brands. Unfortunately some of these brands don’t always get your consumer rights, well, right. That’s where we can help too. If a train company’s fobbing you off, we’ll put them back on track. When a retailer says you don’t have the right to return your faulty product because it’s ‘out of warranty’, give us a shout and we’ll correct them.

In the past 12 months we’ve helped people get their dangerous appliances repaired, avoid bank transfer fraud, be refunded for secondary ticketing scams and more.

We have much further to go in our social media journey, and the landscape is constantly changing. However, we’ve got fuel in the tank and a way forward mapped out.

Before I sign off, I want to say how much I value Which? Conversation too. This community is an extremely important space. You are the eyes and ears of the problems consumers face, and you help us  create invaluable content that we can share with others. We’re also able to have more in-depth conversations and build closer bonds with one another.

What’s your social media platform of choice? Or have you made a conscious decision to stay away? What do you think the value of an online community like Which? Conversation is compared to a social media platform?


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duncan lucas says: 15 November 2018
I am not on any social network nor will I ever will be

You do realise that thisis a form of social media, Duncan? And Patrick: this is a social media platform.

That thought occurred to me too 🙂

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Sorry, but I have difficulty in following your argument. You say

You could then say every technical /political/help website round the globe is “social media ”

and to an extent you can, in fact. I believe the two important aspects are whether the system allows you to create topics which are then read by a lot of people, and the degree of interaction. Many of the sites you suggest don’t allow interaction of any sort, while others simply allow it without moderation.

But I’m more interested in your comment

What this is social control on a world scale to change the publics communication into a controlled environment heavily influenced to conform to US big commercial interests in world monopoly.

Once again you reveal a concern at what you see as a hegemonic effect on the part of the US, but I don’t believe social interaction has ever been a purely US innovation. It may well have been a few US individuals who created the bigger platforms but the internet itself was created by a British innovator, so by that logic he’s to blame for all the ills you foresee.

But it’s good to see you enjoy this social media platform.

In the past I tried Twitter but found that its “signal to noise ratio” was very poor.

More recently, I’ve joined Facebook, so I can better keep in touch with family and friends.

I also briefly visited the Which? Facebook page, but quickly decided not to participate there.

It seems to me that both Facebook and Twitter are excellent platforms for “rabble rousing” and spreading bigoted fake news. I want no part of that.

W?C does also sometimes suffer from the problems of “rabble rousing”, but we do at least have moderation here, to help mitigate the damage. Hence we can have higher quality discussions.

Although Which? Conversation is a form of social media there is no way of addressing a selected audience. It’s all or nothing. That is not necessarily a drawback as it also has a moderating effect.

When Which? Conversation attracts large volumes of comments over a short period it ceases to be conversational and becomes a series of statements without much attempt at reasoning or responding to other contributions. Twitter etc have taught the public to emit talk-bites within tight limits; there is a risk that this trend will drive out quality from social interactions generally and we shall all be found ranting.

That’s an interesting header, Patrick. And, indeed, the Which? forum – when it started – was one of the first kinds of social media (for the masses) ever to appear. Of course, it was also a closed forum – all those who used it had to be either subscribers or have taken out a trial subscription.

Which? wasn’t just an ‘early mover’, either; it was a true pioneer of the online community in ways the others could only dream about. But for me, this sentence stands out with pristine clarity:

We had lost sight of the inherent value of social media: to reach, connect with and build highly engaged communities

In fact, I suspect it was rather different. The PTB were terrified of social media in all its forms. Sadly, instead of doing the honest thing – which one might have expected from Which? – it did the reverse. Instead of openly saying “We don’t understand social media, so we’re going to cut all the elements that made our forum so attractive when it launched and allow it to whither” they simply did that but never owned to it.

But let’s take a step back and look at the original forum: it was dynamic, filled with the movers and shakers from within the organisation. Sheila, Kim, Dave, Alan, Paul, Fergus – the very top people – used to visit and exchange jokes with the members. In return, there evolved a fierce loyalty towards Which? and everything it stood for. If that wasn’t an example of really, really understanding the power of social media I don’t know what is.

Sadly, Sheila’s untimely demise led to a new CEO, whose sympathy towards the forum was utterly non-existent focussed, as he was, on driving up profits (and getting a healthy share of them) and so – inexorably – the directors and managers we all came to know through interactions on the forum stopped visiting. An edict went out (very Christmassy) that no one from Which?’s directorial phalanx was to set virtual foot inside the place.

So I’d argue that not only did Which? really understand Social media at the outset, they made it a resounding success. A new incumbent decided they didn’t like the idea, and so it was allowed to die. Interesting when you look at it, too: a track record of closures where the internet is concerned seems to have been the hallmark of the top management over the past 14 years.

There’s a great deal more I could say. For the moment, however, I agree that Which? has a second chance. But it’s now a long way behind in the game and the same signs that characterised interactions after Sheila’s death continue to be apparent: promises of great things to come but little happening; almost no member privileges; few incentives for regular posting.

Still a way to go, I think.

A lot of insider references there, Ian. What is PTB? And who are the people you refer to by first names? The old days all sound a bit clique-y. More democratic now I perceive.

Interestingly, that was the first criticism I levelled when I joined the place. The use of ‘inside’ references can tend to make it sound that way – I agree, so I’ll explain:

PTB – Powers That Be. Not really an inside ref.

The names:

Sheila, CEO and Director
Kim, Deputy to Sheila
Dave, Director
Alan, Director
Paul, Which? OnlIne manager
Fergus, Head of customer Service.

There were many others, but those were the most common interactions.

Now – I do take issue with the suggestion that it is “More democratic now”. We had a core group – much like today – but we also communicated directly with the folks at the top. And they listened – didn’t always do what we wanted or suggested – but they always – always explained why they couldn’t.

One excellent example of democracy was when there was a move to foist upon on a new type of forum. We nicknamed it Newwol (sure you can work that one out) and it was dreadful. Now, it might have been foisted on us by the PTB at that time, were it not for the fact we approached Kim directly. She listened an reversed the decision.

Contrast that wit the which.net debacle and you can see how things have changed – and not for the better.

Thanks, Ian. Well, that was then and some decades later we are where we are today. I feel that at the direct operational level Which? Conversation is reasonably democratic and there have been substantial changes mastered by Patrick Steen in which those of us interested enough have been able to participate to a high degree, both publicly and privately.

I don’t think harking back to olden times gets us far; we have to adapt to the generation that is in the ascendancy now.

Nobody could legitimately support or excuse the process employed by the Which? management to exit which.net but I would distinguish that from the general running of Conversation.

We all have our unrequited gripes with Which? from time to time and some [Good morning, Patrick T] are forever hurling brickbats at the organisation to no avail, but that is a product of Which?’s promise exceeding its capacity and our enriched expectations based on our association with Which? Conversation.

I feel that in matters concerning Which? Conversation there is at least a consultative process now and we can influence the practical aspects to some degree. Why that approach has not migrated to other corners of the organisation is a cultural problem that the new CEO will need to address.

John: I want to pick up, if I may, on your point:

I don’t think harking back to olden times gets us far; we have to adapt to the generation that is in the ascendancy now.

I would say two things: the first is that if we never learn from history…well, you know the rest.

But the second point is, I suppose, allied to the first, in that what W? created in the mid-’90s was rather special – and certainly unique. For the first time ‘customers’ could talk directly to ‘bosses’. No intermediaries, no rules, no impediments. You could have a dialogue with the CEO.

Through that approach W? placed itself at the forefront of emerging technological communication systems. And this was in the mid ’90s, for goodness sake. Some of the current W? employees would not even have been born. And it took Apple fourteen more years before it would even consider allowing folk to email Steve Jobs.

So why do I harp on relentlessly about this? It’s really rather simple.

What destroyed the unique advantage that W? possessed at that time was the corporate culture. In effect, W? was dragged back into the technological dark ages by those who felt the customer had no ‘right’ to talk to the boss. By doing that, of course, W? squandered the immense advantage they enjoyed.

It’s worth remembering that when Michael Young started the organisation, he envisaged a cooperative endeavour, with the members participating in its development as fully as any staff might.

I agree that Patrick S and his team have achieved a great deal in the time W?Cs has been in existence. It’s been a welcome development. But we must never lose sight of the fact that we’re still nowhere near where we were in 1996, in terms of democratisation, dialogue and cooperation. I do have a record of the number of times we’ve been told something new and exciting is on the horizon, and that it hasn’t yet happened is, I believe, due to the corporate intransigence to which I referred earlier.

But Patrick continues to rise through the ranks and thus acquire more influence. I hope that Anabel appreciates both his value and his vision; because W?Cs remains the second most prominent public face of Which? and how that is developed over the next few years will, I believe, determine whether Which? remains relevant to 21st Century consumer policy or whether it fades into a once-interesting but ultimately irrelevant social experiment.

We can turn back the clock by seizing the day and transforming this place (or its technological successor) into a similar but not identical structure to that which inspired so many in 1996 and which could serve as a beacon for others who still fail to grasp how powerful a truly cooperative movement can be. Or we can throw it all into the bin marked “broken promises, dashed dreams and aspirations, and forlorn hope”. I hope Anabel makes the right choice.

Yes, I see what you’re saying, Ian, and go along with it in general.

I have been a continuous subscriber since 1964 but I had never heard of the Which? Forum until a few years ago – from something you wrote if I remember correctly. So whatever it was it was kept well-hidden and I have to take your word for it being so advanced and valuable to members/subscribers. Perhaps the lack of projection was the only thing Which? got wrong with it.

But as I said, we are where we are and we now have a multi-platform future with different outlooks and different technologies. I just hope Which? strives to reach out in all directions and be as inclusive as possible. I feel that a lot has to change and I support Patrick S in moving things forward, although at the moment it seems a bit like those waterfalls of pennies at the funfair where everything moves forward across a broad front by a tiny fraction and frustratingly slowly. It seems all big organisations suffer from that built-in paralysis.

Everyone seems to be piling the pressure on the new CEO with huge expectations; we don’t even know what the Board was looking for and its mission scope [well I don’t, anyway] so we shall just have to wait and see. I am not expecting much change in the first few months at least.

Fair enough, Patrick, but if you take only one thing from what I’ve written it should be Michael Young’s original intentions. Cooperation and not imposition.

I have just been on all 3 F/T/I (Facebook/Twitter/Instagram) social media links above and the first thing that strikes me is…. how unfriendly they are.

Facebook won’t let you look at comments unless you log in. Try to look at photos and the screen is obscured with a very large banner to log in.

Twitter again won’t let you look at replies unless you sign up, obscuring the screen.

Instagram won’t let you look at anything without logging in, and another login popup obscures the screen.

And of course you cannot post, like or do any other interaction without logging in.

@patrick, I find it very strange that you refuse to make people log in to post here, but put so much effort into F/T/I social media that won’t let you even look at what Which? has to offer without logging in.

All that is required here to post is a user name and a password unlike F/T/I social media that asks far more questions than I want to answer.

So what is the point of all these platforms?

The number of followers you can claim on social media? A few of those 150,000 followers might shoot off the odd one-liner, and even become regulars, but can you honestly call them highly engaged communities? Do they talk to each other?

The number of convo rants/comments on a recycled pet project? They don’t talk to each other much either.

Is the answer just simply numbers?

It seems to me, Which? wants less and less engagement with the people it purports to work for. It wants our money, the figures we generate, but at the same time, making sure we are kept at arm’s length. Much of the interaction we could have has been removed – Which? Local, the email service, product reviews, and even the convos seem to have taken a back seat and be less relevant than they were apart from the odd deluge of rants.

Which? Conversation is a darned sight more social than Facebook, Twitter or Instagram will ever be, but sometimes I get the feeling it’s days are numbered.

alfa, as I’m sure you appreciate, the F/T/I social media platforms are e-commerce businesses not social services.

So, at the point of use, they may be free, as in a free lunch, but they’re not free as in free speech. Hence, some limited sharing of personal data is the price that one must pay to access these services. Obviously, many have decided that this price is reasonable relative to the available benefits (but many others may have just joined without pausing to think about that).

If used well, I think these platforms can help Which? spread its educational messages, so it would be wrong to ignore them.

I am in general agreement with you, Derek, but was it envisaged when it started that Facebook would be an e-business enterprise with all the advertising and trading in personal data that that implies?

Perhaps in the inner recesses of the minds of the founders that is exactly what they foresaw, but the innocent young things that first signed up to it probably had no conception of how its participants’ thoughts and lifestyles would be exploited for commercial gain that is now running into the multiple billions every year – and with no physical end product of any value in sight; everything virtual but nothing virtuous.

When I started at Which? it was clear that we were slightly behind in the world of social media, but as Patrick mentions, things are very different now.

Some of the most fun work I’ve been involved in at Which? has been in social media. Last year on our Trusted Traders platforms we ran a Christmas quiz, which was a pleasure to host and send our prizes for:


Our safety alerts, scam warnings etc also utilise the reach of social media networks to spread the message to as many people as possible.

I also completely echo Patrick’s views on our Which? Conversation community; since I started four years ago I was instantly drawn to Convo with its room for different discussions, interactions and direct contact with you all. It’s been great getting to know you all more over the last few months.

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I have never been interested in any of the usual social media sites, though I have seen examples of family interaction on a sibling’s tablet and how it works. Which can use all these social sites, to its advantage, for promulgating itself, its various messages, warnings and advice on consumer issues. This is using social media as a profile raiser and part of a drive to gain more subscribers. Nothing wrong with that.
Which Conversation is unlike most media sites in that, apart from The Lobby, it is directed by the topics that head each conversation. There is probably a greater degree of moderation here than on any other site. So again, apart from The Lobby, one is not chatting about the daily mish mash of life and exchanging random thoughts on the headlines as they occur. Nowhere here do we send messages to relatives and friends about personal concerns, neither do we make appointments or communicate over business matters. Which Conversation has a defined purpose, that other sites do not have.
If you create a members forum, you do two things. You create a hierarchy of those who can belong and you narrow the contributions of these members to specific member related issues. This then ceases to become a social site and becomes an internal part of the Which structure. By its nature it is not read outside the circle of members. The purpose of such a forum would be to influence the direction and management of Which, and as past efforts have shown, Which is not usually willing to be influenced. There might be some kudos in belonging to a select site and members might feel free to delve into academic and esoteric areas, knowing that their comments are appreciated by others. Good, let them get on with it. This site does what it needs to do within the parameters of good behaviour, thoughtful contributions and community guidance. What it doesn’t do is to make Which management wish to contribute and it doesn’t encourage interference in its working. It also doesn’t take much notice of what is written here. One of the ideas of this site was to use us as a sounding board for research and consumer reaction. We provide the reaction and it is ignored by all but those in charge of shepherding us here on the Conversation pages. They cheer us along and are (probably) kept at arms length from other decision makers?
I find the site therapeutic, but this therapy is personal and little to do with being a Which member or a consumer.

Thankyou Patrick. I like your definition of the Which? Community, it has action and purpose behind it. However, the relevance to most of us depends on your definition of The Which? Community. If you refer to all of us, then that’s great. If you refer to a select group, corresponding within a closed members forum, then that has no relevance to me, personally, though it might do some good if anyone takes notice of what is written there.
Your examples of our influences are encouraging, but there is little evidence presented in the magazine or, indeed, here, that our input has been noticed. I am glad that we have “highly influenced” these matters but it would be good to have recognition for that. Perhaps I have not read the texts you have written when you have “shared a number of examples” when this has been the case, and I could be to blame here. I certainly look forward to more involvement from us under the new CEO. As to you and the team, I have always felt we were in safe hands and always felt that your battles were not so much in keeping us in order and more about making the site an important part of the Which? structure. There’s a lot more to be done here.

Absolutely. This site has played a big role in many of Which?’s achievements over the years. Patrick has mentioned the nuisance calls campaign, and that’s the one that I always think of first as well. I’ll think about how a timeline could work – a page that we can refer to for all our ‘wins’ would certainly be a great way of showing the value of our community, as well as providing the regonition that contributors deserve.

As you may expect I do have a view. Firstly I always like to take the big view of what the organisation does as a whole and then what do the component parts add to the mission.

There has been mention of – forum – which as we know exists, is difficult to access, and has no index. To my mind I have no problem with Conversation per se other than repitition and lightweight articles. For engendering lots of comments I believe it has been a godsend.

The flipside is where is the serious comment and what use does the organisation make of probably tens of thousands of very knowledgeable people.

The Member Forum might be the place where you COULD have detailed discussions on test weightings , on products etc etc. but no there is NO venue for serious discussions. For example have we heard why Which? is not touching the Optical Express case?

I know several are content with what is on offer and of course to my mind I think it is because they have no knowledge of what other consumer groups provide more cheaply, more effectively, and more transparently.

We have had a very top-down arrangement with a Board of businessmen driving an agenda. I look at the Dutch where they sue companies, they have changed the law on new builds/retentions and snagging to the greater benefit of the consumers. There are of course other examples.

I would suggest that we have now an organisation which talks loudly but carries no genuine stick. It is though you sign up for a Alsation guard dog and find instead you have a poodle that barks when most of the mass media barks and months after the more investigative papers and sources have highlighted an issue.

The Which? reputation is incredibly important in making its comments newsworthy, and give added impetus to its commercial growths. If the quality of what Which? offers was compared to outside consumer bodies I fear it will be found seriously wanting.

Which Conversations? was great when it arrived – a major advance – but without some serious revamping of the whole organisation it cannot save it from being seen as a large token bone whilst the commercialising continues apace based on an aura of consumer charity goodness.

If this seems slightly cruel you must bear in mind that every outlet talks of scams and warns people, newspapers, radio, TV’s etc etc. Is it just possible that rather than Which? just chiming in with every other body that it actually it also should be doing serious stuff that nobody really gets it’s teeth into and putting its 700,000 membership behind changes?

What other organisation is in a position to make a big stink about housebuilders and shoddy buildings and incomplete snagging. No organisation I know. Is it a just cause – what are the figuresin terms of people and money – is it very stressful?

I think we can all recognise a case where builders now choose who signs of the build is probably bad for housebuyers and that the Dutch have provided a template for a solution. So Which? a right-sized campaign directly relevant to consumers which has been hanging around for a decade.?

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I’m not on Facebook for security reasons, as touched on before in previous convos. Also because of this for example, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/24/facebook-week-of-shame-data-breach-observer-revelations-zuckerberg-silence

I have been on Twitter for two years now. My, my. It alternates between being fantastic and montrous. As a matter of course I retweet all the safety warnings by Which? that I can. I also make the occasional comment.

Which? Conversation is a breath of fresh air, no ads and no trolls. 🙂

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“humans also share more than half of their genetic material with chickens, fruit flies, and bananas”.

Be kind to your fruit.

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