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Delaying the inevitable – businesses ignoring social media

If your company doesn’t use social media tools to interact directly with customers now, it’s only delaying the inevitable.

Every day there are news stories, blog posts, television commercials, radio ads, and print pieces about consumers and businesses using the internet and rich media to communicate with each other. Some consumers and businesses are still on the sidelines whether out of apathy, denial, or ignorance because they claim these tools are not relevant to their lives or business. For business, sitting on the sidelines often lasts as long as the first brand or public opinion crisis.  Check how active BP was on twitter, facebook, etc. before the oil spill of 2010.  Answer? Not much. An example from the political world is found by examining how inactive the Republican party was with social media in the 2008 presidential elections. Do you think they’ll use the same strategy in 2012?

Let’s face it. Public opinion around a brand can change with lightning speed today because of social media tools.

We live in an age where individuals now have the ability to self-publish content in multiple formats from multiple types of devices. This capability isn’t going away, it’s only getting easier. It started with creating text and uploading to a website. In the early days of the internet this was a task reserved for the technically adept. Look at internet content now. Individuals upload pictures, video, and text from mobile devices, personal computers, cameras, etc.  with which they have constant access. What this means is that consumers have more power over brand perception and appearance than ever. Why? Because they have access to create and share content directly with others who have the ability to consume the content from a growing number of locations.  This breaks from the past because the message isn’t completely controlled by company behind the brand any longer. Individuals are creators not just consumers of information.

In a marketing MBA class my professor suggested another P to the classic marketing mix; Public opinion.

Brands already knew public opinion was an important part of their livelihood. But in the past, they controlled the message to the public. The message was safe because what people saw was approved by the executives and committees within the organization. Now companies find themselves locked in a dialogue with the public to help control public opinion. Some recent examples:

* Toyota used social media during their recall crisis

* Taco Bell used social media during the beef definition crisis

* Ford used social media to squash negative public opinion

Don’t put-off the inevitable. If you haven’t already formed and empowered employees to communicate directly with individuals, do so now.

Social media isn’t just for public relations. It has application all across the business including HR, marketing, public relations, and customer service. Engaging customers in this space provides the following benefits to organizations:

* Records factual information where emotions may skew it.
* Shows goodwill by offering assistance to customers and prospects.
* Shows relevancy to clients and customers by addressing customer service issues in the same forum they are created.
* Engages employees with current tools and technology.  This means motivating employees and increasing productivity because they know they are directly helping customers which directly helps the business.

Most companies using social media today follow a  pattern when addressing complaints.

* Acknowledge the customer complaint and apologize they had a bad experience with the brand.
* Offer assistance by giving contact information for direct service. This attempts to move the conversation out of the public domain but also allows the company to directly assist the customer where appropriate.
* Respond with factual information and acknowledge willingness to aid with more information as necessary. This removes any emotion from the conversation and moves it to a professional level with courtesy.
* Maintain a personal voice, not a corporate voice.

Individuals want to talk on an individual level, not a corporate level.
When you look at the case studies on organizations using social media you’ll see that public values straight talk. They don’t want to feel like they are speaking to a committee or a lawyer. Individuals tend to respond on the same level companies communicate. If the communication is honest and forthcoming then individuals will honor the spirit of the response. It creates customer good will. The great thing for companies in this type of dialog is that the public will often police the conversation. If someone within the public continues to contribute negative content after a company has been forthcoming then the public will recognize this and side with the company.  Don’t believe it for what I say, look at the case studies (some I’ve mentioned above, but you can find others.)

One more thing.
Not responding is something that is often later blogged and critiqued with more negative criticism. It shows lack of interest and engagement with customers. So creating a framework for direct interaction with the public is something organizations should do now while the waters are smooth. Otherwise they’ll be building a boat during the storm. That’s not fun. Just ask BP.