In North America our clients are increasingly interested in the use of social media. My view is that social media is a channel for customer interaction – one of many channels in a communications portfolio.   Social media platforms have tremendous potential because they can provide valuable insights into customer attitudes, beliefs, and values.   It is great information to have in order to make your organization smarter and more responsive to your customers. 

As we talk to clients I hear their view that social media is working for other organizations, it is a powerful way to interact with customers, and this is typically followed by some expression of urgency that they are falling behind.   In some cases it is true, they are falling behind.  But for some organizations that is exactly what should be happening.  They are not ready.  Social media is not something that can simply be layered onto your existing marketing strategy.  It requires thoughtful and purposeful integration that addresses specific goals.  One of my colleagues in the UK, Laurence Buchanan had some insightful comments on this very topic.  You can see his interview here. 

 I have been thinking about two issues lately that are worthy for discussion.   The first is about company culture.  The second is about customer and channel management.  There are other important points that my colleagues on this blog, and on other blogs, have made about Social Media.   These two issues should be included in a thoughtful analysis.

A few consequential questions about your company’s culture should be asked as you embark on your journey with social networking. 

  • Is your organization command and control or highly consensus driven? 
  • Are your products, services, and people strong enough to give up control of the message? 
  • Do you have a history of responding quickly, not just to individual customer issues but to larger business model issues?
  • Are you really prepared to have an open, public discussion with your customers?

These questions are important because Social Media can be a game changer not only in the marketplace, but inside your organization as well.   If you’re not prepared for the openness of social media, feel the need to tightly control your message in the marketplace, or have some operational issues that impact your customers, you should think twice (or maybe three times) about whether leveraging social media makes sense for you.

A recent example of an organization that responded effectively to their customers through traditional channels and social media channels is the GAP.   The GAP was widely covered for its recent logo change.   A marketing and branding gaffe that is embarrassing enough for a fashion company –the change was called a monstrosity by some.  In the past, for issues like this, the energy around an issue fades with the passing of the initial news coverage.  This did not happen with the GAP.  Social sites and message boards were active with conversations about the logo change and about GAP losing its way.   This has been a topic of recent analysis and some solid thinking has been applied to understanding the lessons here.  GAP was smart, took part in the conversation and abandoned their new logo.   While not an ideal outcome, an excellent example of responsiveness to their customers.

Regarding customer and channel management, it is not a conceptually difficult discussion to have with clients or friends at a dinner party.  It is, from our experience working with organizations, difficult to do well.  Organizations have customers that they have information about and they interact through different channels with these customers.  Easy, right?  The problem arises from the complexity within and between the organizations.  So the challenge is to simplify the complexity and find the right ways to interact with your customers.  That is, to interact with each customer in a way that makes sense for them and for your company.  So, a few more questions need to be asked to make those interactions meaningful. 

  • Do you know who your customers are and do you have enough information about them to apply a customer segmentation model to them?
  • Are your interaction channels set up based upon your customer’s needs and your organization’s goals?
  • Are you using interactions to build insight and determine the best ways to help everyone win?
  • Can you resolve most customer issues with standard operating routines? 

You don’t have to answer all of these questions before embarking on the planning phase of your social media strategy.  But if you have clear answers, or have a plan for these issues, you will be much better off from the start.   We work with clients on channel issues all the time.  Developing maturity around managing channels takes discipline and persistence

Social Media represents an enormous opportunity – one fraught with equally great potential downside.  One of the richest examples for failure is General Motors’ viral marketing campaign to create your own SUV advertisement.   It is a great idea, to build creativity and community for people that are enthusiastic about their SUV.  Not a great idea to provide environmentalists an opportunity to create negative ads – which is what happened.     The other example that is commonly referenced, because it is highly instructive, is Walmart’s failed Facebook campaign from a few years ago.  They tried to control the conversation and it backfired.  Target did a better job.  I thought this analysis created some useful comparisons. 

If your organization has the right culture and expectations of how it fits into a broader marketing and interaction model you are likely to do well while avoiding the pitfalls. 

At its best social media brings everyone into the tent for the party.  It creates energy and buzz about what your organization is doing, or trying to do, and improves the connection between all the players. 

At its worst it’s a dinner party with your in-laws that has gone badly:  It seemed like a good idea at the time but then everyone got honest and it’s difficult to recover from the fallout.  Things can’t be unsaid and the best outcome you can hope for is a plan to make things better or to agree to disagree.