This One Goes to 11 (The Amplified Voice of the Customer Online)

SpinalTap_Edith_503Addressing the voice of the customer online is the single most important thing companies, especially large companies, can do this year.

For all of the talk of people “staying connected” through social media, and the growing interest smart brands have in connecting with consumers online, the area companies should be paying most attention to is the increased threat to corporate reputation that social channels bring.

This threat isn’t new. We’ve seen positive and negative examples of how word of mouth can impact a brand for years. The PR industry is built on it. The Web, and now specifically the social Web, has just accelerated and amplified the voice of the consumer and made the discussions searchable.

There are two things driving this phenomenon. First, there are more people online. In the late-90s we were doing whatever we could to get people online. Now they are online, and we need to figure out what to do with them. Second, the tools to share and connect are easier to use and integrate with one another (your Twitter feed posting to Facebook, for example) making your rant about the poor service you received at a car dealership apparent to everyone in your personal social circle and searchable by almost anyone with interest in those things. And, brands should be interested.

The problem is that most large companies won’t do anything to address the threat until they are forced into it. In fact, if you look at some of the companies championed for “getting it” and using the social Web to promote and defend their brands online, it’s a negative catalyst that caused them to think about the Web in a different way.

If it weren’t for Jeff Jarvis, would Dell have taken steps to redefine its online support? Maybe. But, would it have done it with the speed, resources and dedication that now makes Dell one of the best examples of experimentation on the Web? Maybe not. And, then there’s Comcast. If its downward spiral in customer perception hadn’t reached the breaking point, would Frank have taken the initiative to get closer to customers online through social channels? Who knows. But, I don’t think we’d be talking about how Comcast helped revolutionize how companies use social channels to address customer issues if it weren’t forced into it.

So, when people ask if Twitter or Facebook will be around in six months of if they’ll just become the digital equivalent of the Macharena (credit to Joe McHale for the reference) I say it doesn’t matter. The way people share their lives, including the fact that their repairman hasn’t showed up in three days, has changed fundamentally. To see this, you have to look through the technology itself and see how people are using it. And one of the biggest ways people are using technology is to talk about and to the companies they do business with. This is an activity that consumers won’t easily give up anytime soon.

But, as easy as it is to find customers with issues, and for consumers to push the buttons of large brands, addressing these issues isn’t something that most companies understand or are willing to invest in just yet. Until we reach a tipping point (which I think we’re teetering on now), this isn’t a priority for most companies. Acknowledging that these issues are out there means acknowledging that issues exist. And, addressing them requires a commitment – both human and technical (read $) – that most companies can’t or don’t want to invest yet.

But, watch this space. It’s about to really heat up.

Disruptions for the Emerging Social Enterprise

I recently spoke with a group of IT decision makers from several mid-sized companies.  Through this group, I came to realize how pervasive the changes social media are having on the roles and responsibilities within companies.

Where online communication may have been the domain of the marketing group last year, this year these IT executives are now responsible for not only developing the internal policy for how employees can use the social Web, they are also responsible for mapping the company’s approach to social media.

In fact, when I think about how my job has changed in just the past couple of years, I see a shift in responsibilities that I couldn’t have imagined just two years ago when I was responsible for traditional PR and blogger programs.

And, as my colleague Blair Klein who was presenting with me said, the lines between internal social media policy and external strategy are blurring to the point that they will soon be indistinguishable.

I’ve included the deck here that we walked through along with the results of the poll that we did with the group to see what their level of engagement in social media is today.  I hope to do a follow-up poll ahead of the next conference to see if their social media habits have changed.

Until then, hit me in the comments or on Twitter at @bradmays.

Social Media has as Nothing to do with Media

The irony about the term “social media” is that the category isn’t about media at all.  You should fill your social channels with content that appeals to the group you’re trying to engage.  Unless yours is a social community for journalists, then you should think beyond what interests media and find out what your community really wants.

That’s not to say that media won’t follow what you are saying in social media, just that the content that typically works best in social media may not always be of interest to media.

What you’ll find once you stop thinking about media as the audience is that it opens up the possibilities for content that may not have otherwise been conceived.  In traditional PR terms, that means things like timeliness, newsworthiness and appealing to the masses.  For social channels, you’re looking for the right context and content that will bring value to the discussion.  I’m not saying that it’s any less stringent than what you would offer media.  In many ways it’s more so.

The only way to know what will appeal to your community is to actually be in your community.  The ways and reasons to do that is the topic for another post, but it should be someone’s job to know what content the community wants, what it doesn’t and to know that it’s alright if it doesn’t draw in media or result in an article or post.

whole_foods_logoA great example is what WholeFoods has done with its @WholeFoods Twitter feed.  It’s billed as “Fresh organic tweets from Whole Foods Market HQ in Austin, TX,“ but what I get from it is a sense of the culture of the company, and useful things to know before I lay down my cash in the store.  It’s getting increasingly tough for WholeFoods to get out the information in the midst of addressing specific customer inquiries through this main channel.  But, you’ll see the variety in what they try to post and how it’s not necessarily something that media would have been interested in.  What they’ve created is as close as you can get to retail online in a Twitter feed – hints, tips, questions asked and answered.  Understanding what works requires someone(s) being in the community every day monitoring and interacting with the people.

This approach of not looking at media as a target also translates when deciding which content to post on social channels when that content originates as part of a program or campaign.  When deciding what to post to a social channel, have a discipline in place that says it’s not a foregone conclusion that all content will make its way to your social channels.

Remember that you’re building the trust of the communities that form around your content.  Every time you post something, you’re leveraging your brand’s social capital.  These are the daily decisions that can determine the overall strength of your social program.

(Originally published on BeyondBanner.com)

Ten Social Resolutions for Marketers in 2009

If 2008 taught us anything, it’s that 2009 stands to be proving ground for the social Web. With declines in viewership, subscriptions and recall of traditional channels, it will be more important than ever for marketers to cut through the noise and separate the hype from the truth about what the social Web is all about. And, if the burn rate for most start-ups is any indication, 2009 might be the make-or-break year for many of those shiny trinkets to start putting out for investors.With this in mind, and the uncertainty of the economy a reality, I see the new year as a great opportunity for everyone to catch up on all these changes and take advantage of the great things happening on the Web. Here are a few resolutions marketers can make in ‘09 to help bring about a prosperous new year.

Resolution #1 – Develop a Personal Habit of Listening and Participation

The communities of the social Web – MySpace, LinkedIn, blog communities – hold a wealth of information.The best part- it’s all available for free if you are an active listener. And, if you want to multiply your return, become an active participant. Every community has a unique feel and function. What’s acceptable activity for a brand on one may not be acceptable on another. The best and easiest way to understand what’s happening generally and specifically is to become a participant yourself. Get involved and stay involved.

Resolution #2 – Don’t Look Directly Into the Light

There’s no doubt the consumer Web has reached critical mass, and the tools are easy enough for even those new to the Web to start using immediately. Within most of the popular social networks there’s a place for responsible marketers to provide value. But, there’s more to the tools of the social Web than meets the eye. The buzzwords of today could be forgotten tomorrow. What’s happening underneath is more substantial and something to build a long-term strategy upon. Just don’t be overly optimistic about the potential for any one network to be marketing nirvana and instead look to capture the value of the medium and understand how it fits into your marketing mix.

Resolution #3 – Be a Convener, not a Depleter

With opportunity comes risk and responsibility. You have more opportunities to connect with customers and for those customers to talk about you. And, they are talking. The Web can bring together disparate groups around a common context. It’s this context that offers a chance to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. Consumers are as savvy on the Web as they are off, maybe even more. And, they are resistant to marketing messages that aren’t relevant or too self-serving. Be irrelevant, self-serving and not offer anything of value to the discussion and your message will not only be discarded, you’ll likely be talked about as one of “those” companies. Offer relevant content and value to the discussion, and you’ll get a closer dialogue with customers that the Web promises.

Resolution #4 – Adopt a Blogger and/0r a Blog

I find it odd that there are still companies who don’t work with bloggers. Even with all the evidence of blogger influence on mainstream media and the growing numbers that some blogs are attracting, some companies still refuse to work with bloggers. I hear from bloggers all the time about these companies. I guarantee if your competitors aren’t already working with bloggers, they are thinking about it. If your company’s leadership is still resistant, start small and work in ’09 to meet, face-to-face, with at least one blogger relevant to your industry. It’s fun, it’s easy, and you can’t avoid it any longer.

Resolution #5 – Resist the Urge to Control

Social networks are fertile ground for dialogue with your customers the likes of which have never before been possible. Ceding control will let you better manage your brand in this new environment. Control of message, control of context, control of timeline and control of content all reside with the consumer. Resist the urge to put the approach, timeline and value of these conversations in traditional terms. Patience isn’t prevalent as a strategy in most marketing plans, but when it comes to the social Web, patience can pay dividends.

Resolution #6 – Forget the Internet

Customers might congregate between the bits and bytes that make up the online discussion, but online world has created offline opportunities to connect. The social communities of the Web offer a chance to introduce or support your brand, but there is a growing opportunity to extend those online conversations intooffline brand experiences. As an example, watch the way Twitter communities look for ways to connect offline in the form of Tweet-ups and look for a way to insert your company’s offline presence into the equation.It’s not about the Internet, it’s about the underlying desire to connect.

Resolution #7 – Align Digital Assets

The Web takes a lot of care and feeding. The product of the social Web is conversation, and its food is fresh, compelling and relevant content. I see companies that have taken time and resources to develop channels that connect with the social Web, but they are consistently lacking fresh content. It isn’t enough to create a Facebook page. If you have a Facebook, MySpace or Twitter feed, look at the number of fans or followers and the last update to the page. If your updates don’t reflect the interest in your page, consider developing a content calendar to get things back on track and align the content with the expectations of the customers who have congregated there.

Resolution #8 – Align Physical Assets

Just like as your content needs are greater on the Web, you need people in numbers aligned around the common goals of listening, responding, creating and updating. Traditional marketing organizations and models aren’t structured to respond to the needs of the social Web. Once you look at your products and programs in conversational terms, you begin to shift thinking and resources to better align to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges of the Web. It starts to put traditional channels of PR and advertising in their place of strength, and it helps align the needs of the organization to feed and tend to the discussions around your brand.

Resolution #9 – Make a Plan

Taking a page from marketing Sherpa Patrick Byers over at The Responsible Marketing Blog, you need a plan. The large companies I work with often have the opposite problem in that they over-plan. Smaller companies tend to have the opposite problem in that they’re busy doing instead of planning. With so much of the Web in flux, even with a solid plan of attack it’s hard to know sometimes where to put your energy.Hopefully some of these resolutions will give you some signposts. But, certainly with no deliberate plan, you’re sure to make unnecessary mistakes.

Resolution #10 – Be Social, Think Mobile

For all the hype around social networking, we’re at the beginning of a transition. That change is mobile social and geo-social – bringing people together around a shared context based on location. GPS-enabled phones, social applications like Loopt and Brightkite and phones evolving into personal, portable PCs bring greater control and mobility to consumers. Add to that the planned advances to the mobile networks in the coming years, and you’ve got a bright and powerful future for the social Web. Use 2009 as the year you determine where the current and future mobile opportunities are for your brand. Understand what the mobile implications are for your search strategy, Web site design and content. If you become an active participant and listener in the current social Web, you’ll be better prepared to take advantages that the mobile social Web will bring. It’s a mobile world, embrace it.

These are a few of the things I’ll be looking at in 2009. But, with all that will evolve in 2009, don’t forget to focus and listen. Experiment with a few social tools and monitor the results. Listen to the communities you join personally, and listen to those communities that are talking about your brand.

Share any resolutions that you think I’ve forgot, or correct me on any you think don’t match with what you’ll be doing in ’09.

(Originally published in December 08 on BeyondBanner.com)