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Smart Business, Social Business: Embracing the Social Customer

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Social customers are here to stay and are gaining influence every day. This chapter explains why companies need to keep the social customer top-of-mind when optimizing internal business processes and creating external engagement strategies.
This chapter is from the book

In a perfect real-world scenario, this book is meant to mirror, in chronological order, the natural evolution into a social business. That is, a business undergoes a cultural change and a shift in the way it operates:

  • Tearing down silos and communicating effectively across the organization u2192.gif adopting social technologies that foster communication globally u2192.gif instituting governance models that emphasize smart participation on the social web u2192.gif employing tactical considerations that address the social customer.

People have always been social, even before the Internet. Sharing experiences with others about the brands, products, and services that they love or hate comes naturally. The difference today is that the social customer now has a voice that travels well beyond the living room. The social customer is influential and isn't afraid to blog about negative experiences, share thoughts on Twitter, and post critical comments within status updates on Facebook. Some customers even spend hours writing well-formed critical product reviews on Consumer Reports, CNET, Epinions, Amazon, and Yelp. The end result of all these conversations happening in the social space is that every review, rant, criticism, praise, opinion (positive or negative), blog post, and tweet is appearing in Google search engine results—and has been for many years now. Companies might face a reputation-management problem when others see criticism in the search results when searching for a brand or product.

  • The difference today is that the social customer now has a voice that travels well beyond the living room.

Companies need to embrace social customers and learn how to work with them collaboratively. This starts with a social media practitioner, the point person in any organization who establishes, fosters, and guides conversations with customers across the social web.

The Value of a Social Media Practitioner

The social media practitioner is potentially any employee with sanctioned authority to represent the brand or the product or service on the social web. The social media practitioner is essentially responsible for interacting and engaging with the social customer. This person might or might not have "social media" in the job title and could be a customer support agent or an engineer. Social media practitioners are mainly responsible for managing the daily operations of a community or routing service requests, product insights, or sales inquiries to the appropriate subject matter experts or departments. Social media practitioners might also be responsible for collecting actionable intelligence, insights, and reports, as well as making specific recommendations for editorial changes to corporate blogs and communities based on those insights.

Social media practitioners can include the CEO, the chief marketing officer (CMO), or even the information technology (IT) analyst who just started with the company. Often the title "social media practitioner" is synonymous with "community manager." This depends on how the company is organized internally.

The value of social media practitioners is twofold. First, customers see them as trusted sources of information, more so than corporate communications and advertising personnel. Why? Because people trust other people like themselves. This was discussed in Chapter 1, "Human Capital, Evolved," when referencing the Edelman Trust Barometer. Second, the social media practitioner is the company's first line of communication with the social customer, so the trust factor is an extremely important attribute.

Social media practitioners are the human link between a company and its customers. Because this is such an important responsibility, companies need to consider several criteria before hiring an employee for this role.

Hiring Social Media Practitioners

The phenomenon known as the "social media expert" is largely a myth. Avoid individuals who promote themselves with such a label. The very nature of this space involves constant change and adaptation. It is said that true knowledge is found in understanding that there's always much to learn, and the same is true for social media.

That being said, it's still important for companies to hire and train social media practitioners and help them develop expertise about both the brand and social media technologies and best practices. When hiring specifically for a social media practitioner, it's important to look for certain qualities in candidates:

  • A passion for social media—A good social media practitioner knows about popular new social technologies and has an ongoing interest in news related to the progression of social media and its application to business. He or she is also passionate about customers and the brand or product.
  • A people person—Look for someone who can communicate effectively online, offline, and in blog posts, in 140 characters or less. He or she must also be able to communicate the value of social media to senior management.
  • Strategic thinking—The candidate must be able to set measurable goals and look beyond social media when creating marketing plans. The ability to see the big picture is important.
  • Effective collaboration skills—Communication skills and effective sharing of ideas can make a significant impact across the company in various business units and geographies.
  • Analytical thinking—The candidate must be able to understand various methods of tracking the effectiveness of external social media engagements, and then extract key and actionable insights to use for future plans.

Whether a company is hiring social media practitioners or simply empowering and training existing employees, a governance model must provide direction and guidance when creating social media profiles, specifically with Twitter.

  • When engaging with social customers on Twitter, it's absolutely vital to be 100 percent transparent in all communications with them, and this starts with disclosure.

For example, when engaging with social customers on Twitter, it's absolutely vital to be 100 percent transparent in all communications with them, and this starts with disclosure. It's good practice to disclose the nature of the relationship between the practitioner (the employee, contractor, or agency) and the company represented somewhere in the bio. This can be as simple as stating, "I work for company X, but these opinions are my own." At all costs, social media practitioners also should avoid spamming the community with one-way marketing messages and promotions. An overly commercial message is a very easy way to convince the social customer of your irrelevance. It may even spark a groundswell movement of criticism, which is never good for any brand.

Perhaps one of the best ways to find qualified talent is to leverage the collective networks of those who already have a solid grasp of the social media space. Cisco is a good example of a leading-edge social media organization that exemplifies this behavior. Candidates there are sourced internally from the networks of existing staff.

After a company has identified, hired, and trained its social media practitioners, the next step is to determine how those people should represent themselves on the social web and establish a social media profile to engage with the social customer.

Corporate Profiles Versus Personal Profiles

When employees first began using social media professionally, they were tweeting and blogging about anything and everything. Some employees were disclosing where they worked, and some weren't. Some were using the corporate logo as their profile picture, and others were using their own head shots. Others were spamming anyone and everyone with one-way marketing messages and promotions. The social web was basically a free-for-all—and the source of major internal headaches for senior management. Few companies established governance models and began to think through tactical approaches to external engagement.

Specifically, few companies considered the management and governance of social media profiles and, more importantly, what happens when employees decide to leave a company after they have built significant brand equity within those social profiles.

One example is the Twitter profile. Three types of Twitter profiles have evolved in the last few years: personal, corporate, and hybrid.

A personal profile is self-explanatory: It's used for personal reasons (to share relevant content with friends, ask and answer questions, promote one's own content, ramble, and in some cases build a personal brand). If employees are using a personal profile to talk about the company they work for, they should disclose that they are employees of that company. This is standard practice, and most people are doing this today. Additionally, most personal profiles link to a personal blog, Facebook page, or LinkedIn profile.

A corporate profile usually has the trademarked name as the Twitter handle (as in @Intel, @Dell, and @Adobe). The look and feel of this profile is company branded and matches the corporate identity of the organization. Often the logo serves as the profile photo. Much of the content shared on a corporate profile is specific to company-related news (announcements, staff hires/departures, press releases, product launches, press briefings, quarterly earnings, and so on). Additionally, companies are creating Twitter profiles specifically for products such as @Photoshop, which are used just to share product-related content and interact with their community. Customer support usually has its own corporate profiles as well. For instance, Adobe has @Adobe_Care, used to solve customer support inquiries across all product lines.

Hybrid profiles come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. No set standard or existing nomenclature is used; a hybrid profile embodies characteristics from both the corporate and personal profiles. One that really stands out is Scott Monty's Twitter account. Monty runs digital marketing for Ford Motor Company. A close examination of his profile reveals that he uses elements from both a corporate profile and a personal profile. His Twitter background is completely branded Ford, so at first sight, it looks like he is either a Ford enthusiast or an employee. As his profile photo, Monty uses a picture of himself with a Ford logo at the bottom. He fully discloses that he works for Ford, and much of his daily interaction involves evangelizing about the Ford brand, interacting with his community, or answering Ford-related questions. Monty links to his personal blog, where he writes mostly about social media marketing and not so much about Ford.

The question "What happens when Monty decides to leave Ford?" suddenly turns into a serious business concern, especially because he has almost 50,000 followers and has built significant brand equity for Ford and himself. That's why it's important for organizations to think about the long-term implications when appointing external spokespeople and empowering social media practitioners to engage online. Companies must consider two issues to protect themselves:

  • Establish a governance policy that addresses personal and company profiles. More importantly, for personal profiles, companies must determine how much of company resources can be used to promote their growth and expansion.
  • Empower more than one employee to be external spokespeople for the brand. Dell has done an outstanding job of this over the last five years by empowering multiple employees to engage externally and even standardizing their Twitter accounts (as in @richardatdell, @chrisatdell, @deniseatdell, and @manishatdell).

Empowering more than one person to engage with the social customer is good practice because it potentially solves a few problems before they even arise. First, although these Twitter accounts are personal profiles, the standard nomenclature makes it naturally transparent where Richard, Chris, Denise, and Manish work. In addition, if one of them decides to leave Dell, the company would face minimal impact because the others would be able to take up the slack and continue to engage with the community.

One of the most common ways for companies—specifically, social media practitioners—to address the social customer is through customer support. Most conversations that involve the social customer are complaints and concerns about a company's product or services—and maybe even the support department itself—so this is a natural first step.

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