The social media phenomenon has revolutionised the way in which companies and organisations advertise their presence and communicate with their customers and the wider public.
But while the likes of Twitter and Facebook can be useful marketing tools, they place traps in the path of those unaware of the opportunities they also present to internet “trolls” and other malcontents who happily post online messages regardless of the laws of libel and regulatory requirements.
The public relations disasters and financial losses suffered by major companies in the wake of social media abuse have, however, also served to open up a new market for Birmingham entrepreneurs James Leavesley and Calum Brannan whose company, Crowd Control HQ, has carved a niche for itself in social media risk management.
Utilising software it developed itself, the company helps protect the brands and reputations of its clients by acting as a firewall between them and their social media pages and preventing malicious, obscene and otherwise damaging postings from getting online.
Crowd Control HQ is a classic case of savvy entrepreneurs spotting a potential market and exploiting it for all it is worth – which in this case translates into an estimated annual turnover of some £500,000 within three years of start up.
And with a client list that includes companies such as Luminar, the nightclub chain, Severn Trent, Vauxhall and Aga Rangemaster, as well as public bodies such as West Midlands Police – just one of the many police forces on its books – the company is already well down the road to fully exploiting its potential.
James Leavesley had a business career with BOC, the industrial gases group, while Calum had experience of running his own online social network, before the pair came together to form Crowd Technologies, the company behind Crowd Control HQ.
The business, which now employs 15 people, was formed in the depths of the recession in 2010 with the help of a loan guarantee and went on to secure financial backing from the likes of Warwick Science Park’s Minerva Business Angel Network and Midven, the West Midland venture capital company.
Set up originally as a provider of bespoke networks, the company quickly learned that as more and more companies turned towards social media as a means of communicating, both internally with their own employees and externally with customers, there came a growing need to control and mediate those networks.
It was their experience with Luminar, operator of 70 nightclubs and bars, that led James and Calum to the understanding that it needed to take control of what was being put out into the online domain in its name via the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
“They said they needed to capitalise on social media and asked if we could help,” James said.
“When we started digging around we realised they had lots of social media accounts and that they were all owned, and had been set up, by individuals across the organisation.
“Central marketing didn’t know they existed and had no control over them.
“They were awash with content that really wasn’t appropriate and potentially damaging to the brand.”
Another problem that Luminar was unaware of at the time was that any individual who set up a page in its name could walk off with it at any time.
This is what happened in the case of a manager who took access to his Luminar venue’s Facebook page and its followers with him when he left to work at another club, rebranded it with the name of a rival company, and took business away from his former employer.
According to James, there was a general lack of understanding of social media on the part of companies at that time.
“They were saying ‘we don’t believe the risks are that great and we also don’t believe that social media will catch on’.
“Obviously they were wrong on both accounts.”
Luminar’s initial experience with social media proved to be the catalyst that created Crowd Control HQ as a business helping organisations to control access to their social media pages by providing, among other benefits, an audit trail that identifies who posted what message, constantly monitoring online activity, and filtering out the offensive, the libellous and the obscene.
“We started to identify other types of vulnerable organisations across lots of different sectors and that’s where we started to look at police forces and local government,” said James.
“So many organisations were naive – I guess that is probably the politest word – and just didn’t see the risks.”
A social media pioneer among the UK’s police forces is West Midlands Police (WMP), which quickly spotted its potential as a communications channel between itself and the public.
It enables its officers and public relations staff to listen and respond to conversations across blogs and news sites as well as on Twitter and Facebook and to communicate directly with the public in the event of an emergency, such as a terrorist alert or natural disaster.
An important element of Crowd Control’s work with WMP is the constant monitoring of output to ensure that nothing that could potentially jeopardise a prosecution gets online.
“That’s on the risk management side,” said James Leavesley. “Then there’s a whole series of collaborative tools that enable the organisation to work more efficiently and effectively as a team.”
Talking about his experience in setting up a new type of company in the depths of recession he said: “It was tough, but not because we had to find our clients in the recession.
“It was just that our clients were unaware of the risks and therefore there was no budget, or line item in the marketing budget, or the IT budget or the risk management budget for social media risk management software.”
Describing 2013 as “a great year” so far, James said Crowd Control HQ has recently recruited three new salesmen from different market sectors to ensure it appeals to the widest possible range of customers.
“Enterprise social media is actually quite a scary area.
“There are so few experts who have been involved in the roll-out of enterprise social media, and so we are finding that the upfront services we provide, such as getting the system set up, training, configuring the system so it’s a mirror of the organisation, and ongoing account management, actually become a really strong proposition for us.
“We have done a huge amount of education with most of our clients and we have been on quite a journey.
“What that has helped us to do is really to design our product service offering so that it is unique in the market.”