Getting Social Right

Social media, long the province of marketing when the term is applied to business, is now viewed by progressive organizations as much more than a channel. Instead of a medium – think conversations – and instead of a place to talk – think Twitter – social is now a descriptor for collaborative processes that are relevant across the business landscape. In HR, social media is used to effect better hiring; in operations, it’s used to improve employee/customer collaboration, and so on. And yes, marketing has its own applications too.

The challenge facing most businesses now (and note here that I’m not talking exclusively about large organizations or consumer-facing products companies) is that the tendency for an individual to prefer engagement via some sort of asynchronous, collaborative, and real-time process is on the rise. What does this mean in practical terms? Simply this: instead of calling an 800 number (not asynchronous, since I have to be able to call, and be willing to wait, only during published service hours), people are turning to Twitter, Google+, support forums, and Facebook to post messages and then (perhaps minutes or hours later) looking for a response. In other words, “Here’s my question…let me know when you have an answer. If your competitor answers first…or answers in a better way, this will probably impact my next purchase or renewal decision.”

Assume that like most firms you are listening to what your customers are saying. Assume as well that you are summarizing conversations in public and private support forums, on channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, and that you are summarizing and reporting on what you find. That’s a good first step, but by itself it’s like driving a car based on your observed gas mileage: sure, you can tell how far you went, and you can plan how far you are likely to go on the next tank. But you won’t have the details on where you went, or even if you went where you were supposed to go.

Just listening to the social web using the many tools available to marketers – Radian6, Sysomos, NetBase, Collective Intellect, Alterian, and good old Google Alerts to name just a handful – strips away the complexity of what is actually happening. Trend charts showing conversational volume, overall sentiment, and anecdotal examples of “influencers'” actual comments hide the scary inner workings of those massive flows of unstructured data that have come to define the social web. No one will blame you for not wanting to go there. But you must.

Here’s the key insight: if you want to manage conversations, and you want to respond to those customers choosing to engage with you through asynchronous, real-time channels…then you’ve got to turn the standard listening tools inside out. Instead of summarizing, you need to deconstruct. Instead of one-offs from influencers (who your own customers may not even follow…), you need to see every applicable post from every customer you care about. Think of it this way: you need to understand and be part of “everything being said that would impact any customer’s decision to buy or renew.” The great thing about the social web is that, from your customer’s perspective, it provides a forum in which to say “Hello, my name is Pat. I’m one of your customers and I’d like to ask you something.” Why wouldn’t you respond? When the fish are telling you what bait to use (and they do), smart fishers switch to that bait.

Yet a lack-of-response is exactly what the majority of customers experience: see Jay Baer’s nice write-up on the sad state of Twitter-readiness. Jay concludes that 70 percent of companies ignore customer complaints posted to Twitter. Fact: all of the companies that I am loyal to have responded to my inquiries to them on Twitter provided that I have been polite and constructive. Big note here: snarky jerks do not warrant a response! There are thousands of comics out of work. If someone wants to practice stand-up on your Facebook business page, they do so at their own risk. For more on this, see this USAF/Jeremiah Owyang classic: the social response matrix.

Heading into the holidays – which hopefully means you’ll have some time to think about businesses like your own, from the perspective of a consumer – imagine a world where real-time, relevant posts were answered promptly. Imagine a business built on an engagement standard of “send me a reasonable comment, and my team will not only reply; we’ll use that comment to make our products and services more to your liking.” Try this: over the holidays, visit a Four Seasons or drive a Mercedes-Benz. I know what you’re thinking…but stop right there and ask yourself: “What if every brand treated me this way? What kind of world would that be?” Personally, I believe that regardless of price-point, any given person can treat any other person on this planet with dignity and respect in the context of a business transaction. Promptly answering all customers’ questions on Twitter would seem to be an excellent start to creating that kind of world.

Happy Holidays, and thank you all for another year of interest in my column and for the helpful, insightful comments you’ve offered throughout 2011.

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