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Richard Branson on How Social Media Changed the Way He Does Business

Even in social media’s early days, it spread like wildfire.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Two of the big changes over the twenty years since I wrote my first autobiography have been the rise of social media and the way the internet has changed the way we consume information.

When I open my mouth I’m never completely sure what is going to happen next. However, “Joan, have you seen my iPad?” is something I regularly come out with these days. I read every day on my iPad. There will always be a place for the printed word, but it will be increasingly niche as even better tablets and phones are released. I did an interview with the New York Times on Valentine’s Day 2000, which they headlined “Taking Virgin’s Brand into Internet Territory.” “Richard Branson says the web is ready for his style of business,” ran the subheading. The web may have been ready, but I definitely wasn’t, in many ways Virgin wasn’t, and this cost us a lot of time and money.

One of the biggest mistakes Virgin ever made was not being fast enough off the mark to become a digital leader. In the past few years one of my focuses has been putting our brand at the forefront of new technology. We put a lot of the errors to bed in the UK with the growth of Virgin Media and its unique business model. From our adverts with Usain Bolt to our WiFi offering on the Tube, it has become one of the main ways the brand is known in Britain. However, there have been many episodes along the way to learn from.

To begin with, we were extremely quick off the mark when it came to the iPad, and decided to launch the world’s first iPad-only magazine, called Project. I joined the team outside Apple’s flagship New York store, covered head to toe in newspaper—another one of Jackie McQuillan’s arresting outfits. The magazine was great fun, pioneering a new way for people to digest stories. Running Project became even more enjoyable when Rupert Murdoch launched The Daily—his own iPad publication—and we got some friendly competition.

“This is not a battle,” I said at the launch. “This is not a war. It’s the future of publishing. If you’d like to call it a battle, then call it a battle on quality. I think when you see the competition, you might agree that our team win hands-down.” However, as both Rupert and I quickly realized, we had completely misjudged the market and we were publishing into a void. The critical reception was positive, but there weren’t enough people with iPads, and certainly not enough willing to pay to read a magazine. Within less than a year, both publications were dead.

I was disappointed that Project didn’t work because journalism was where I’d begun all those years before. I started Student magazine because I had a passion for making a positive difference in the world, and thought one of the best ways to do so was by spreading the word in print about injustices, as well as sharing new breakthroughs and innovations in the arts, culture and politics. While I disliked school, I always loved writing and often posted letters home, published comment pieces in the Stowe School newspaper, and thought about becoming a journalist.

As Student took off, I rapidly entered a surreal world of interviewing the likes of Mick Jagger and John Lennon, and commissioning pieces by Jean-Paul Sartre and David Hockney. In 1969, I even wrote an article in the Daily Mirror headlined “Enter The Peaceful Drop-Out.” Aged nineteen, filled with the optimism of youth, I ruminated on the power of individuals to stimulate positive change. But as well as realizing my journalistic ambitions through Student, I was trying to make ends meet, calling up potential advertisers and organizing distribution. Without even knowing what the word meant, I was becoming an entrepreneur. Then, as we struggled to balance our books, the mail-order records business we had started in the back of the magazine took off. Simultaneously, we were running the Student Advisory Center, our nonprofit organization helping more than 500 young people each week cope with issues ranging from loneliness to contraceptive advice to sexuality. With these projects taking up lots of time and effort, Student went on the back burner. Soon Virgin Records” shops and later record label superseded everything and my journalism career was parked.

But while Project wasn’t a success, I like to think Student’s spirit of outspoken thought and heady fun is revived through a different way of connecting with people: my blog and my Twitter account. In the same way I try to highlight causes we care passionately about, and I hope we’ve made a difference by campaigning online about global issues ranging from boardroom diversity to ocean conservation. We’ve basically started our own in-house, online publishing operation, and thanks to social media I’m back in the editor’s chair. To begin with, I was unsure about its benefits. But 8,000 tweets, scores of social networks, thirty-five million followers and a world record for the most LinkedIn followers later, I’m happy to be proved wrong about social media not being here to stay. When Bob Fear and Christine Choi at Virgin HQ first set up my blog and Twitter account, I was surprised when lots of people started asking me questions online. There were random ones like “How do you make a fig roll?” alongside people with genuine queries about Virgin. It was fun, and I started to realize how powerful Twitter could be. I called Jonno Elliott, my personal investment manager, and we soon ironed out a deal to take part in Twitter’s next funding round. It was the start of a new series of investments into technology that I’ve become keen on pursuing.

As well as the novelty factor, I could see how important social networks could become for customer service, something that has always set Virgin apart. When I was running companies hands on, I always made a point of personally handwriting replies to people who had complaints. Since I didn’t enjoy this, I made sure the problems were solved and not repeated. At the end of 2008, I received what is commonly referred to as the funniest complaint letter of all time. The author hadn’t enjoyed his meal on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Mumbai, and let me know in, frankly, hilarious terms. “Well, answer me this, Richard, what sort of animal would serve a dessert with peas in?” he wrote about our Indian meal option. “How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like; it must be like something out of a nature documentary.” As soon as I read the letter I called the Virgin Atlantic team to ensure our meals were back up to top standard. Then I phoned the unhappy customer, apologized for his below par experience and thanked him for his constructive, if tongue-in-cheek, letter. “I’m very sorry about this. On the bright side, you really made me laugh, which always helps to get my attention!” Even in social media’s early days, it spread like wildfire. Those companies who haven’t reacted to the expectations of swift, useful online service will see their customers move to their rivals quicker than you can type 140 characters.

Excerpted from FINDING MY VIRGINITY: The New Autobiography by Richard Branson, published on October 10, 2017 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Richard Branson.

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