For thousands of years markets have sprung up at crossroads because that's where people meet, sometimes for the first time. Where are you going? What do you have? Want to trade? Word of mouth (WOM) then spread out from the crossroads: "Look at what I traded for…etc." The social web is no different, and in fact it's purposely biased toward the original buyer/seller- (versus "Mad Men") driven marketplaces: word of mouth is the gold standard. When I'm interested in something based on your ad, I'm going to read reviews and use what I find to make my decision.
So the question arises: If beneficial WOM is the end-all of market drivers, how exactly does one drive positive conversation on the social web? In a medium where anyone can say anything, how is a brand supposed to manage its image? No doubt you've asked these same questions.
When it comes to managing a conversation the simple answer is that it can't be done. It's a bit like trying to manage the artifacts dug up by anthropologists 3,000 years after the fact. It's too late: managing what people will find needs to be done while you're still alive, and that means getting control over the experiences that drive conversations in the first place.
To be sure, there are plenty of attempts at conversation management, and there's no shortage of firms that are all too ready to tell you they can do it for you. Yet when it's all said and done, the unfettered conversations of customers continue. Your potential sales are still impacted - positively and negatively - by these conversations.
To understand why this is so, a quick diversion is in order. Recognize that a brand is not a "thing." A brand is a concept. Your dog can chew on a bone; your dog can't chew on a brand. You may prefer a specific brand of bone for your dog, but the fact is your dog just wants a bone and in a pinch a good-sized stick will do just as well. Therein lay two competing realities: brands are completely made up and are physically intangible, yet can definitely drive sales. Want proof? As I was driving to work one morning I spotted a bumper sticker on a Ford F-150 (I live in Texas) that read "I'd rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy." Makes no sense at all to the reviewers at Consumer Reports, yet makes perfect sense to the owner of that truck and a whole lot of others. That's the ephemeral nature of brands, and it's what sits at the heart of the inability of brands to manage social conversations.
Dig deeper. Consider the basic purchase funnel: awareness, consideration, and purchase. Advertising drives awareness and, to a greater or lesser degree, purchase results after some considered thought. Word of mouth enters during the consideration phase, where customers seek the opinions of others whose experiences are relevant to the purchase at hand. The content farms, brand white-washing services (which these days also includes green-washing), and outright fake social content publishers who attempt to pull an end-run by creating enough "positive" social content that customers looking for ratings, reviews, stories…will satisfy themselves before discovering anything negative. And guess what: it works!
Of course if the story ended there, social media marketing and social brand management would be a simple matter of pumping out positive content. The story doesn't end there. Better tools, smarter search engines, and savvier customers are engaged in what amounts to an arms race with the spin doctors. So, best case, if "spin" is your answer to the social web you're in for a long, expensive fight. You'll create the price floor that your new competition will rely on to beat you. There's got to be a better way.
If brands are concepts, what builds them? Simply, it's consistently delivering on the promise that is embodied in the brand. If Nike made poor quality shoes that hampered your ability to "just do it," what would the brand be worth? Starbucks lost its way…and then recovered by asking its customers the question "Who are we?" and aligning itself around the rediscovered answer. Apple is in the news due to labor issues: the brand has become an icon for an entire lifestyle, but has managed to offend the lifestyle sensibilities (decent living and working conditions for all people) that are themselves a component of that lifestyle.
Building a brand on the social web is less about "showing and telling" and more about "doing and proving." It's less about the ad (though the ad is clearly part of it) and more about the actual experience. In my books on social media and business I make the case for understanding touch points and in particular sorting out which touch points are most likely to drive market conversations. Get those right, the theory goes, and the conversations will take care of themselves. Instead of cleaning up afterward, don't get dirty in the first place.
Enter customer care and the new rock stars of marketing. I'd argue (but beware: sometimes I lose) that there are more opportunities after the sale to drive positive conversation than exist prior to and during the sale combined. GM's "Saturn" division provides an insight here: much of the marketing and position of the car was centered on the purchase experience. But what about the actual car? How many Saturn owners have you encountered that spontaneously talk about the joys of "seeing their baby roll past 100,000 miles?" How many Saturn owners do you know who made it past 100,000 miles? Mercedes-Benz offers its owners badges for those achievements, and plenty of Mercedes-Benz owners have earned more than one. Saturn closed its doors in 2010, the same year Mercedes introduced its flagship performance offering, the SLS AMG. Take care of me after the sale and I'll heartily recommend you.
The takeaway is that marketing and operations are converging, and the new battleground is customer care. I wasn't kidding when I referred to the new breed of social agent - in customer care - as the "rock stars" of brand building. Smartphone adoption is driving people to the social web for customer care issues: it's just so easy to tweet, "Hey you, I need help!" The result is a tsunami of new posts - more than the phones, more than the emails, more than the chats - that need a response. Your social agents, armed with tools that scale and thereby help them manage, as a team, thousands of posts daily are your path to social conversation management.
Get started now by moving into operations, connecting the dots across the functional areas of your organization, and engaging customer care in the fight for market share. By getting your agents involved, by meeting customers where they are, and responding in ways that delightfully surprise them you tap into an unending supply of beneficial word of mouth. And you thought fusion energy was a big idea!
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Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.
Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.
Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.