Social Media: From a Point of Presence to a Point of Business

Search for “social media listening” and you’ll find upwards of 200 tools and platforms that claim (most rightly) to “bring visibility” of the social web and the ways in which it impacts your business. Sentiment, trends, and influencers all factor into the various visual and tabular readouts that help you see what is happening as consumers talk about your brand, product, or service, like so much eye candy for the metrics-starved.

Social media listeners sit at the core of savvy PR and marketing diagnostic suites, helping professionals on those teams to “actively listen,” to pick out and respond to key influencers, or to spot trends in sentiment and conversation volume. Combined with a multi-faceted point of presence on the social web – generally consisting of Twitter, Facebook, and some mix of Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, and a company blog – the listening tools are the first step in moving from “publishing” (the social offspring of interruptive advertising) to “participation.” It’s a big step, too, and lots of brand teams have spent years getting this right.

But there’s more. Building a point of presence on the social web that affords some degree of customer participation is a requirement for any contemporary brand. That means it’s no longer a differentiator. Instead of gaining opportunities for more business because of an investment in a social media presence, it’s more likely that a business will simply lose opportunities for lack of an adequate presence, often without realizing it in the same way that ships pass in the night. Customers approach, pass, and then silently drift way. That’s a double challenge: the actual opportunity is the avoidance of a loss, so it’s hard to see. Add to that the reduced ability to react that comes with a weakening business: the competitive advantage being built by proactive brand managers now will be significant later. In a world of quarter-over-quarter sales and margin pressure, that too is a tough sell.

But differentiation at an observable touchpoint drives word-of-mouth, and so the question is “How does a brand build this differentiating capability?” For starters, forget the idea of “out-fancying” a competitor’s Facebook page. The battle is not how cool your Facebook presence is, but what actually happens when a customer visits it and uses it to talk to you. To be sure, there is a lot that you can do to attract people (and even entertain them) with regard to your (often significant) investment in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other sites. But the real value is in using these presence points for collaboration, for two-sided discourse, or for innovation. In short, it’s about focusing more on the “social” and less on the “media.”

Instead of cranking out Facebook brand posts with the nutritional value of potato chips, open up the social channel for participation between specific individuals in your firm and specific customers in your marketplace. For example, when you see an ordinary customer (not a high-profile “influencer”) asking a question about a new phone that you’ve just rolled out, route that conversation to a specific agent who can help that customer. Follow that conversation as it goes back and forth between that agent and that customer until it is resolved, whether an hour or a day later. Invite that customer to come back, and provide such amazing service that she actually wants to!

Can your listening platform do this? Most can’t, because they were never built to in the first place. Customer service has become the differentiator, and nowhere is this more important than on the social web. It’s customer care, live, in public, and personalized. Do that well and your customers will refer friends to you by name, answering questions like “How likely are you to recommend ____” with “Very!” That is a huge win, and it’s a critical success point for an evolved social business. It also raises the bar for the tools you’ll need.

The key desired behavior is often described as “advocacy” or “evangelism.” These behaviors don’t follow from claims promised in ads: they follow instead from promises…delivered in places like product experience and customer service. So as you look at your own social platform, ask yourself: Are your customers responding to questions that you’ve asked on your Facebook page? Or are you responding to the questions they’ve asked on your Facebook page? The difference is everything.

As you build your social technology platform and your social business practices, take a look at your current program: if it’s social publishing combined with campaign management and diagnostic feedback, you’re on the right track but you’ve boarded the wrong train; you’re on the local. What you need is the cross country express. Publishing and diagnostics – the classic marketing/PR fare – will get you into the game, but they won’t (alone) provide the competitive capabilities to differentiate your brand, product, or service in ways that your customers will articulate, in their own words, and on their own terms. You need to move all the way to operations and customer care.

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