Move Beyond Listening and Build an Engagement Platform

A friend referred me to an article by Brian Solis that makes the case for social interchange – more so than advertisement interaction – as being the basis for engagement. No argument there: unless you can make the specific case for not participating on the social web, it’s by now a given that a basic presence, integrated into your marketing program, is in order.

The challenge involves moving past social media-based marketing and building an entire social business plan. You must understand how your business fits into the marketplace, your (real) community, into the lives of your customers and employees, and how your business becomes part of the social systems that exist around it. Simplified, it’s the difference between taking a product or service to market through interruptive ads versus becoming part of a larger ecosystem, having a product or service that is not only naturally referred, but which also evolves over time based on collaboration among customers, your organization, and the market itself.

Social media research, monitoring, and listening using platforms like Radian6, Alterian SM2, Netbase (Disclosure: I use, work with, or have business relationships with all three of these platforms), and others is an obvious best practice. Whether your firm is actively engaged in conversations on the social web or not, listening (monitoring) is a great way to understand the context in which your business operates. What are customers, influencers, and others saying about you? It’s good to know that answer.

Connecting With Your Customers

Beyond PR and marketing applications are approaches that allow for more substantive connections to your business. These include the use of “workflow” tools that allow the teams that watch these conversations within your organization to direct interesting posts for efficient, accurate response. (Radian6 and Alterian’s SM2 offer workflow support. Other tools do too: Hootsuite Pro, for example, has an “Assign To” function.) This is useful in spreading the load, and, in connecting your customers with the resources in your organization most qualified to respond. Not only do your customers love this, those in your organization who get to speak on behalf of the brand – with appropriate training and policy guidance – love it as well. Participation is empowering, and empowerment feels good.

These workflow tools also enable you to spread the use of social media beyond your immediate marketing team. For example, while a subset of the posts about your brand, product, or service may be relevant to your efforts in managing your online reputation, a significant share of what your listening tools discover actually relate to a customer request or issue. A typical post on Twitter goes something like this: “This is the third time I’ve tried installing the latest patch for my phone…#FAIL”

Sure, you can respond with “We’re really sorry. Please call Customer Support and they will help you.” At least your customer will see that you are listening and that you’d like to help. That’s good. But look at it from your customer’s perspective: she has a phone in her hand, but instead of calling you, she used it to access the social web, where she connected with you and her friends because that’s where she spends time, and that’s where she solves problems. So, why not respond via Twitter and resolve the issue right there?

For most brands, the rationale for not responding via Twitter goes something like this: “Our listening team is not trained in customer service, and our customer service agents are not connected to the social web.” Increasingly, I believe, that justification will fall short. Steve Rubel put it this way back in January 2010: “An entire generation is growing up that will never dial a 1-800 number to reach customer care.” If your front-line support channel is phones, and right now it probably is for good reason, think about that. Increasingly, customers will instead simply post the problem and their issue will be resolved in the medium in which it was declared by the first responder. In many cases, that “first responder” will be another customer, and that’s fine. Customers helping customers drives brand loyalty through the perception of value associated with a vibrant support community. Problems arise for any product or service – but if I know that there are people around me who can help, I am much less worried about that than if I am “on my own.”

Takeaway: Establish a Social Business Strategy

You will need to consider a two-pronged social business strategy.

First, connect your business to the social web more deeply than simply listening. Connect your support team, your marketing team, your product designers, your legal staff. Make it a priority to figure out how to responsibly engage on the social web, rather than making another excuse for why not to. Yes, it’s difficult, but look at the upside: if it were easy to do, your company wouldn’t need you and your expertise to sort this out. Be thankful it’s hard.

The second prong of your engagement strategy is to place your resources where customers already are. In a page right out of Jeff Jarvis’ interview with BusinessWeek’s Diane Brady some five years ago, too many brands still expect customers to “come to them.” Here’s an example: you see a tweet like “I am having difficulty logging in today,” so you respond “Please see our online FAQ.” That helps, but on a scale of one to 10, where one is “not helpful,” it’s about a three. Much better would be: “Here’s a link to our recovery process.”

By responding in-stream, you meet your customers where they are, which delights them. To do this, your organization must be wired properly. There needs to be a direct path from the social web – where your customers post – through listening to internal routing to response formulation and the ability to post an in-stream reply. And it all needs to happen in a timeframe that makes sense to your customer. This, in turn, means you need a business strategy that recognizes and embraces the social web. You need a workflow plan, response procedures, social media usage policies, plus training on those policies. That means you need marketing, customer service, legal, and HR together at the table. Yeah, it’s hard.

So why do all of this? Because the social web is emerging as the most powerful touchpoint through which to build brand advocates. Take a look at this post from colleague Esteban Kolsky – his ideas on creating a “hub for customer interaction” are spot-on. Start creating your hub now, and build your social technology roadmap with measureable changes to brand advocacy as your business objective. The resources are out there, and you’re up to the task.

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