Social media is helping to forge a new era in business transparency and engagement, creating both new challenges and opportunities. Gone are the days when companies could rely on carefully crafted press releases or flashy ad campaigns to communicate with their customers, often in an attempt to convince people that their products are the best in the field. In the age of social media, the rules have changed radically, and people today demand a more honest and direct relationship with the companies with which they do business.
Companies now face a clear choice: wall themselves in and become increasingly controlled and hidden, or use social media and other means to reveal their human side, welcome transparency, and forge new relationships with their customers. The old game is undoubtedly over, and the question now is, “what can businesses do to transition and succeed in this new era?”
Below are the top four broad shifts that social media is causing in business. Please feel free to share any others you have observed in the comments.
1. From “Trying to Sell” to “Making Connections”
In order to change the context of customer relationships from trying to sell to seeking to engage and connect with customers, companies need to use various means, including sites like Facebook and Twitter, to socially interact with people. The most popular brands in social media tend to post less about their products or services and more about things that help their customers get to know the people and personality of a company. Their goal is less about “selling” and more “engaging” — and, as a result, through such engagement people feel more comfortable doing business with those companies.
Jeff Swartz, who is the President and CEO of the Timberland Company, is a great example of this. Swartz uses his Twitter account to show his personality by tweeting about his life and the social issues he is passionate about, rather than the shoes his company makes. He also links from his Twitter bio to Timberland’s Earthkeeper project that supports environmental awareness, rather than to the company homepage, in an effort to make a connection with people around something that goes beyond just the products Timberland sells.
Lesson: Release fewer “official statements” and more personal ones that help you make a connection to your customers and audience.
2. From “Large Campaigns” to “Small Acts”
With sites like Facebook and Twitter, we all essentially have our own broadcasting network, and businesses are beginning to see that rather than spending millions of dollars on traditional ad campaigns, small acts can be more valuable because people will inevitably share such experiences through the social web.
In the past, if we had a very bad or very good experience with a company, it could take days or weeks to tell all of our friends and relatives about it. Today, in a matter of minutes, we can let all our friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter know about what happened. When every customer experience can be easily and widely broadcast, small issues become super important.
Loic Le Meur, CEO of startup software company Seesmic, once told me that one of the most important jobs of a CEO today is to hear what people are saying about the company’s product across social media channels, and to respond to them directly. In fact, much of his Twitter stream is @replies to people commenting on his company’s product.
Bigger companies, such as Southwest Airlines and Comcast are using Twitter in the same way, making sure customers’ concerns are addressed. Because bad experiences are broadcast just as fast and just as easily as the good, it pays for companies to pay attention to the one-on-one customer relationships forged via social media.
Lesson: Instead of only relying on big campaigns, make authentic, helpful relationships and communication the new campaign.
3. From “Controlling Our Image” to “Being Ourselves”
Of course companies need to have employee policies, and there is such a thing as bad press, but look at the most popular companies in the era of social media, and you’ll generally find the ones that give their employees freedom to be themselves in online spaces. The goal should no longer be to create a very controlled and polished image that everyone in a company tries to reinforce, but rather to give employees the means necessary to be human beings that can put a friendly face on the corporation.
I am not sure how NBC directs the social media efforts of their employees, but in watching NBC newscaster Ann Curry (@AnnCurry) on Twitter it is clear that she is not simply trying to get people to watch her shows. Curry is someone who speaks out about women’s rights, deeply cares about justice, and likes to quote the Persian poet, Rumi — there is a person there, not a company representative, and as such, I am much more likely to pay attention when and if she does talk about any of her television shows.
John Nack, the Principal Product Manager for Photoshop at Adobe, offers another great example. Adobe is a company that smartly encourages and provides the means for their employees to blog, and anyone who reads Nack’s blog will notice that Adobe doesn’t put many restrictions on what people write about. Nack’s blog is focused almost exclusively on his area of interest — graphic design and photo manipulation — but he doesn’t post solely about Adobe products. Many of the interesting art projects and articles he links to have nothing to do with Adobe and some may even have been created using software from competing companies.
Lesson: Forget the unified company image, give staff the freedom to be themselves, and trust that the relationships that they build will help the company in the long run.
4. From “Hard to Reach” to “Available Everywhere”
To engage with customers, it is no longer enough to have an email address and customer service number on one’s website. Today, people want to interact with and engage businesses via their chosen means of communication, whether that is Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums, or a feedback site like Get Satisfaction.
If I want to communicate with a company, I tend to look them up on Twitter first. Knowing that I can communicate with a company on the networks upon which I am already most active makes me feel more comfortable doing business with them, because I know that if I have an issue, there is someone at the company I can communicate with through those means.
Companies like Dell, for example, have fully embraced multiple channels of support. Their community site lists all the ways customers can connect with them through Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, forums, blogs, email, and more. Dell wants people to be able to connect with them through whatever channel is most comfortable.
Lesson: Rather than expect customers to communicate through your chosen means, allow them to do so through their chosen means.