The social network

Social media is creating a paradigm shift in the way the world communicates. Defining exactly what that means for your business is key in enabling the substantive communication opportunities, while keeping a keen eye on the risks. Trevor Morton reports

For several decades now, bulletin boards, chat rooms and email have become the accepted channel for one-to-one and many-to-many conversations. It was in October 2003 that Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and three classmates created a college website project, Facemash. Such was the ‘social’ impact across university campuses both in the USA and UK that, by the following June, Facebook, as it became known, established its HQ in Palo Alto, California. The social media revolution began. To say it has ‘snowballed’ would be an understatement.

In less than a decade, social media is set to create a paradigm shift in the way the world communicates. What it is changing is the ubiquity, scale and the speed by which individuals, groups and more recently organisations, can now interact. Social software brands such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and most recently Google+, provide highly functional and user-friendly interfaces to social forums that eclipse the media footprint of any of the established print or broadcast media empires.

With Facebook in the lead, subscriber numbers are measured in hundreds of millions. According to website Internet World Stats, estimates are of some 937 million Facebook subscribers as of September 2012. With general internet usage growing at a rate of eight users every second of the day, it’s no wonder commercial and government organisations have made it a key element of their media strategy. In the recent US presidential election, Barack Obama’s Facebook page chalked-up 33 million ‘likes’ whilst his YouTube channel delivered 246 million views. Like it or loathe it, whether you are in the twittersphere or not, your organisation must factor it in to its approach to communications, PR and wider business strategy. Ignore it or fail to address social media at your peril.

What is the best way then for organisations to reach out to their public in the future? Whilst you may think your website is the Holy Grail for would-be customers, how you draw in visitors is a moving feast. The challenge for organisations is to retain and rekindle links with their customer base through a mix of the new social media and the traditional channels of press and broadcast, in whatever shape or form that might take.

But success in a social media dominated world requires a sizeable shift in the communications strategies and methods. According to Paul Chayney, social consultant and author of four books on the topics of social media marketing and business blogging: “Companies have to be willing to join the conversation without attempting to control the communication. In other words, there is a risk that companies, out of a desire to minimise criticism, especially that which may appear on its own website or social network property (Facebook Page, for example), will, to the degree possible, limit communication so that it is outbound only. In today’s social media infused society, that approach isn’t feasible. If people are going to talk about a corporation or public body, they’re going to do it whether those organisations are involved in the conversation or not. By joining the conversation, organisations keep a stake in the game and a chance to address criticism in a matter of fact manner, influence attitudes and correct misinformation that may exist.” Clearly, this is not business as usual for PR and marketing departments.

Reputations on the line

Just as social media can generate significant gains for a business; it has the power to cause losses and damage to hard won reputations. In 2009, a less then complimentary video made by two employees of the global pizza franchise Domino’s was posted on YouTube. The employees were doing things to food that may have been served to customers. As word spread through the social media wires it became a major discussion on Twitter and was subsequently viewed by over half a million people within two days. To mitigate the damage to its reputation, the CEO of Domino’s Pizza went before the camera to explain in a video what happened and what they would do about it. A franchised based global operation, Domino’s Pizza in reality could not have prevented the actions of two errant employees of franchisee. However, it highlights the risks to businesses in a socially networked world. According to Ffion Tudor, social media strategist at Box UK, “It’s easy to inadvertently post a personal tweet from a business account. Systems need to be in place to ensure the two are kept separate. The use of social media exposes firms to the risk that confidential information may be inadvertently (or otherwise) be disclosed”. Social media is for the most part unregulated. Events such as those that beset Domino’s Pizza are impossible to prevent. Organisations must be prepared to face up to the risks in the brave new world and be ready to mitigate the effects of adverse events.

Following procedure

At a more routine level, policies and procedures need to be in place to eliminate errors and exposure. Comments made online need the same level of vetting as any corporate communication. Controls need to be in place as to who tweets and posts in the name of the company. “Whichever platform you choose to use, be careful when you are describing your products and services. False or misleading statements can create liability,” adds Tudor. “Opinions are accepted, but claims about features should be carefully reviewed. Paying for reviews and not disclosing this fact could escalate to you being sued for false advertising. To counter this risk, always clearly disclose any relationship between your business and somebody speaking publicly about you via your website or though social media.”

Reputation management, the practice of monitoring attitudes and feelings towards your brand or business takes on new meaning in an online socially connected world. Organisational reputation, seen as an increasingly valuable but an intangible asset of many businesses, calls for proactive engagement with social media. No longer can it be left to the annual market research exercise to tell you what customers think. “People expect a quick response and, if they fail to hear from an organisation within at least a 24-hour period, that plants a negative stigma in their minds. A timely response to a public tweet about poor service, promising a potential resolution is critical to reputation management,” added Chaney. According to Emma Banks of LV=, the UK’s largest friendly society and a leading financial mutual: “From a customer services point of view, any organisation that deals with consumers should be able to interact with its customers on social media channels. At LV= we operate ‘LV= cares’, a Twitter channel manned by our ecommerce team that can help deal with customer queries or issues. We also have a Facebook page should customers choose to contact us through this channel. This presence enables us to monitor and respond quickly to individuals and give the customer a great experience.” LV= sees other benefits from social media such as its use of Twitter to support its sponsorships. “We have a LV= rugby twitter feed that is updated regularly with news on the LV= cup which enables us to interact directly with fans and engage them in our proposition.”

Is social media only relevant to consumer marketing? Not according to the latest research from the USA that indicates that 93 per cent of B2B marketers now use social media to market their business. It presents a significant opportunity for businesses to better interact with their markets and customers in the future. Current approaches of dicing-and-slicing markets based on often-minimal demographics are set to become redundant. Customer relationship management (CRM) must adapt to consider each prospective customer based on their individual interests and needs, increasingly apparent from their social media profiles. According to Richard Young, director of EMEA at CRM software vendor Nimble: “Organisations will need to move away from the traditional ‘hard selling’ processes. Instead, they will need to align with the customer’s ‘buying process’ as would-be clients based on their social media footprint. When someone posts a tweet, or follows a blog relative to your product and service offerings, there’s a good chance they may be a prospective customer. Companies that can anticipate that need and response appropriately will have a distinct advantage and be more efficient selling organisations.” This supports Chaney’s view that organisations that discount or minimise the influence of social media altogether will fail to create social properties that give them the opportunity to engage with customers, colleagues or constituents.

Looking ahead

Still in its embryonic stage, ‘social’ brings challenges as well as opportunities. For example, the written word is not the only form of posting or reply. Marketing staff must develop new skills and become effective bloggers relative to the social platforms required. Organisations will need to respond with video content as a matter of routine. In a social world, the marketing department will not be alone in joining in the conversation. Rolling dialogues are replacing the fixed deadlines associated with traditional media such as newspapers and magazines. Adapting to the new world is critical. The alternative is to be left behind.

According to Aphrodite Brinsmead, senior analyst at business and technology research firm, Ovum: “Social media impacts many parts of a customer’s relationship with a business. Customers use social media to get recommendations and find product information before making a purchase; get support after purchase by asking questions directly to a business or peers; post complaints; and vent about their experience as well as to recommend a product or service. Those enterprises that have embraced social media monitoring and marketing and are using information to better understand customer opinions and market to their needs. However, many have yet to embrace social media as a customer service and support tool. Social media is set to become a more important lynchpin, not just for marketing and sales, but for connecting the customer experience across the customer lifecycle and providing proactive support.”

Few organisations can afford to ignore social media. For those firms already present and tweeting, the risks are manageable and the benefits are recognised. Change and new skills are required principally in, but not limited to, marketing functions. For pure B2B organisations ‘social’ will become a necessary element of the marketing mix and an effective way to address a wider audience. As younger generations mature, along with their use of Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and, whatever comes next, there will be a surge in the number of highly-connected and social savvy consumers.

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