The Roar of The Crowd
As appeared in bizAZ Magazine July/Aug 2008 edition
Unless you’re selling specialized rivets to the military industrial complex via no bid contracts, chances are your customers are talking about you online. And not just via email, in a “hey mom, I think your accountant totally messed up your taxes” way, but in a massively public forum, using social media.
Imagine you run a coffeehouse. Imagine your regular morning barista calls in sick due to a tragic tattooing mishap. Imagine the replacement guy is the Bill Bidwill of coffee pouring. Imagine a regular customer goes to Facebook and posts a message to the Arizona Coffee group about your inadequate beverages. Those people then repost to their friends. Within 10 minutes, hundreds of your customers and prospective customers are chipping away at your brand with every keystroke.
Welcome to the present, where every citizen is a journalist, and listening to online conversations is a requirement for every company.
The fact is people need to communicate. Along with inventing new and exotic flavor of Doritos, it’s what we do. The other fact is people don’t have much time (or gas money) to communicate face-to-face any longer. Been to many 2.5 hour business awards luncheons lately? Me neither. Technology has filled the vacuum of human connectivity, whether it’s social networking sites like Facebook, review sites like TripAdvisor, or group bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon.
American Idol drew an average of 29 million users this season, making it by far the largest show on television. In contrast, MySpace has more than 110 million users, and Facebook has more than 65 million, more than half of whom are older than 25. Take the number of people that read the New York Times online every day. Multiply them by 26. That’s the number of daily YouTube users.
Social Media – Not Just For Kids
Social media is big, and it’s not just for kids. How can you make it work for you?
First, you have to fundamentally embrace the concept that communication between your company and its customers must be a conversation, not a monologue. Consumers don’t want just the two paragraphs of boilerplate pabulum that your PR firm crafted. They want insight. They want humanity.
Are you going to be exposed to less than rosy perceptions of your company? Probably. But unless you currently inhabit the White House, isn’t the ability to know your weaknesses and do something about them superior to ignorance? If indeed your replacement barista sucks, that knowledge is useful. In many ways, social media and consumers’ conversations within it is the canary in the coal mine for your company’s operations and marketing.
Second, you have to decide whether you are in listen mode or proactive mode. Listen mode entails monitoring a wide variety of online sources to determine where and when your brand (as well as your competitors’ brands) are being discussed, and using the texture and tone of those comments to improve your company operations. Listening mode is sometimes called Online Reputation Management, and often includes a program whereby members of your staff (or your agency partner) will jump in to social media conversations to put out fires and provide assistance.
Proactive mode takes the program one step further, and involves the creation of social media content to facilitate (not just react to) conversations between consumers and your company. Creating videos, blogging, building a Wikipedia page, a Facebook application, encouraging consumer reviews. This type of envelope pushing is especially effective when deployed by brands that are not known for inciting customer passion. The less than sexy H&R Block has deployed a very broad and terrifically nuanced social media program for many months, and its customer base among social media users has soared.
Ultimately, if you don’t reach out and become part of the online conversation about your brand, the social media community will define the attributes of your brand without your input. And while that may work out just fine, a cursory review of what’s on YouTube these days makes me want a seat at the brand definition table pretty badly. So take your fingers out of your ears, and use what’s being said about you online as an opportunity, not an albatross.