Social media can strengthen customer relationships

It's good to talk

19 October 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Why social media change how we communicate with customers and how to use them to your advantage

Guest columnist
Thor Harris/Percepture

 

 Rex Features/Chris Eyles

THE ONE-WAY conversations we used to have with customers and prospects - news releases, marketing collateral and static web sites - are no longer enough. They're still useful, but if your company is not using what the social web has to offer, you are leaving money on the table.

So what are social media, aside from funny videos and 140-character Twitter rants about what to wear to a party? Social media are a competitive advantage waiting to be leveraged by those who take the time to understand them. Whether it is Twitter, blogs, networking sites such as LinkedIn or news aggregators like Digg, which allows readers to rank and comment on news items, social media are much more than a fad. They are a premise, a methodology, a change in both mind-set and action - and they are huge.

TWO-WAY STREET
Unlike traditional marketing techniques, social media allow anyone to have a voice, so the relationship becomes more of a conversation than a simple push of information. Feedback is instantaneous in many cases. If you are listening more closely than your competitors, you can make faster adjustments and quickly gain higher ground and more market share.

Social media allow you to influence your audience like never before, and for you, in turn, to be influenced by knowing what your customers and prospects are thinking.

At this point you may be wondering: "Before I decide to care about this, do my customers, partners, employees and prospects care?" Yes, they do.

Everyone from the CEO to the office administrator is doing something online - searching for information (including video) about products you are selling, checking pricing, finding suppliers, looking for reviews of your products or services, scouting for business partners, vetting employees - and more.

As you might expect, the majority of executives under 40 years old use some form of social media. According to a Forbes report on how executives locate and filter business information, more than 60% blog regularly to promote their business, and some 75% use RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds to follow frequently updated work such as blogs and news.

Consider:

  • Business-oriented LinkedIn is growing about 35% faster than Facebook, which is more socially oriented
  • 64% of C-level executives conduct six or more web searches per day to locate business information
  • One in five prefers video over text
  • 53% visit online forums for business-related information
  • 47% visit social networking sites for business purposes
  • 46% seek out work-related information on blogs
  • 44% look for business resources on video sites such as YouTube

Perhaps more telling, some 92% of C-suite executives said they found information on the internet vital or important to making decisions.

VARIETY OF PLATFORMS
Social media can take many different forms, including blogs (Blogger, WordPress), social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn), wikis (Wikipedia), podcasts (which are like radio or television shows over the internet), photos (Flickr, Photobucket) and videos (YouTube).

One of the fastest-growing social media sites over the past year has been Twitter, a free social networking and micro blogging service that enables users to send and follow updates in concise, 140-character posts called "tweets." The site has nearly 32m unique users, according to a Time magazine article published earlier this year entitled: "10 Ways Twitter Will Change American Business." According to Time, Twitter is "increasingly [becoming] a place where companies build brands, do research, send information to customers, conduct e-commerce and create communities for their users."

For example, Comcast Cable, a US-based internet and television service provider, uses Twitter to "push" information to customers - not only news announcements and lineup changes, but also customer service, in 140 characters or less. The cable giant encourages subscribers to its Twitter feed ("followers") to tweet about programming and service issues, scheduling and pay-per-view questions and more. The forum also allows customers to ­provide both questions and answers, saving Comcast money and enhancing its ­reputation.

This degree of interaction strengthens the community "following" Comcast and improves brand loyalty among the firm's customers.

However, marketing yourself and your brand via Twitter can be tricky.

For every Ashton Kutcher, CNN and Oprah, there's someone who manages their Twitter a bit too carelessly. Earlier this year, University of Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin ran afoul of NCAA rules by Twittering the name of a highly sought recruit before the player had been officially signed. As it turns out, Kiffin didn't even make the post - it was his assistant. But once you let it fly, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

An example of the smart use of Twitter is employing it to promote your company's presence at trade shows. Your company can tweet morsels of news before, during and after the show, linking readers to web sites and other company promotions. Of course, the more you plan and strategize for the use of Twitter, the better it will work. The use of videos, podcasts, blogs and other social media can all be combined for very powerful promotion of trade shows before, during and after.

BEST PRACTICES TO KEEP IN MIND
1) Be yourself (and be genuine). Say what you think plainly. Twitter creator Jack Dorsey originated the social tool simply because he wanted to keep up to date with what his friends were doing. That in essence is what all Twitter users want - even followers of celebrities, local businesses and large corporations. They all just want to know what's happening in the lives of the people - and organizations - that interest them. They want to feel as if they know your company personally.

Here are a few related things to keep in mind:

  • Provide a unique voice. While it's useful to send links to relevant content, it's also important to offer your own perspective. Try to maintain at least one-third original content.
  • Be professional in your tone and content.
  • Be considerate. Try to provide enough information with URLs to tell what the content is about.

2) Know the legal issues. If you put information out in the public domain, then you're going to need to follow certain guidelines and policies and really walk in lockstep with your company's legal department. Legal might be worried about this at first - it is their job, after all, to be worried ahead of trouble - but every day, companies all over the world are using social media without running into trouble with intellectual property laws and other issues.

3) Make sure your company has a defined social media policy. This is something your legal department will hit you with right away, and legitimately so. If you have employees at any level engaged in social media, whether it is Twitter or Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, podcasts, or RSS feeds, you're going to need a social media policy surrounding the use of those media. You do not want them spending all day on social media, of course, and you do not want them saying things that can get the company in trouble. This is the flip side of the issue, but again, the waters are absolutely navigable.

4) Read and think before you send. It is a little too easy to think of a flip answer or statement and shoot it out into the world of social media. This can get you in trouble fast, the same as sending an e-mail while angry or replying to "all" instead of one person with news that not everyone should see. So write, reread, fix any typos (which make you look ­unprofessional) and calm down, if necessary, before sending. Remember, humor doesn't always translate.

5) When in doubt, seek the advice of a pro. Your marketing people, whether internal or an external contractor, should have solid experience in social networking and should be able to prove it. Lean on them to get started. Ask them to do a presentation or webinar for everybody. That way you all get on the same page, which can save a lot of trouble and expense.

HOW PERCEPTURE USES TWITTER
I have yet to meet a marketing professional I didn't think could benefit from using Twitter, as I've found it to be such an incredible resource for marketing information, insights and connections.

Still, many marketers say to me: "But I don't know what to tweet." Figuring that out is a process I refer to as "finding your Twitter voice." For me it involved combining a little self-discovery with what I know best - PR.

Finding your voice on Twitter often requires blending your personal and professional brand. I knew even before my first tweet that my Twitter presence would be for personal use, but I needed to be conscious of how it would reflect on my company, too. If your company has social media guidelines, they may help you set some parameters.

Ask yourself: "What conversations do I want to be part of?" By combining my interests in marketing with my passion for helping growth-oriented businesses, I was able to create a voice I felt represented me both personally and professionally.

Also think about the question: "What value will I bring to that conversation?" Figure out what you want to say and how it fits with your brand.

Whether on Twitter or social media in general, if you follow the right people, use the right tools and find the right guidelines for your voice, joining the conversation will be easier than you thought - and much more valuable.





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