Sam Knowles charts the rise of the social media consumer.
Social media has changed the world - and particularly the world of brand management. Influential and connected consumers, customers and stakeholders are increasingly playing a key role in building and sustaining - but also damaging - corporate and brand reputations.
Our recent research for both UK-based PR consultancy Fishburn Hedges and American Express have charted the inexorable rise of the social media customer.
The Fishburn Hedges study shows that by April 2012, more than a third of Britons (36%) had interacted with brands through social media. This has nearly doubled in just eight months. In August 2011 just 19% of British consumers had used social media in this way.
Similarly, the 2012 American Express Global Customer Service Barometer showed that 17% of Americans had used social media at least once in the past year to obtain a customer service response. These studies show that the brands that embrace social media and use it intelligently as a customer service tool will be the long-term winners in the reputation game.
Twitter is fast becoming the new call centre, and this will have a profound impact on how companies monitor, staff and respond to customer comments and complaints.
The Fishburn Hedges study found that using social media to interact with brands is more satisfying for the complainant. Sixty-five per cent of consumers who complain on social media prefer it and call centres have become a turn-off.
Novelty is part of the appeal but also thanks to social media's real-time immediacy, customers are getting responses that are dealt with more personally and more quickly than ever before.
Moreover, more than two-thirds (68%) of those who have used social media channels to communicate with brands believe it gives them a greater voice, and 40% of all consumers believe that social media has improved customer service for good - whether or not they currently use social media for customer service.
Similarly, American Express's 2012 Customer Service Barometer found that US consumers who use social media for customer service are more likely to tell others about their customer service experiences, spend more with a company they feel provides excellent customer service and abandon a purchase due to a poor service experience.
Using social media for customer service is also not just the province of the younger, Generation Y and Generation Facebook customers. The Fishburn Hedges study found that not only had almost half of 18-24 year-olds questioned dealt with a brand using social media, but that 38% of 35-44s and 27% of over 55s had done the same. As social media comes of age, the proportions for all age groups are increasing.
Out in the open
Using social media in this way is, of course, much more open and permanent. This makes it potentially more damaging to brands and companies. When a consumer tweets how dissatisfied she is with a hotel, @ing the company Twitter account, she not only records a complaint with the brand.
When a frustrated broadband customer posts a blog linked from his Facebook page about being disconnected for the fifth time that week, it doesn't just arrive in the cable company's inbox.
Echo's study for American Express have found that those in the US who use social media for customer service tell more than three times as many people about poor service than those who don't use social media in this way. The upside is that when it comes to good service, the number is nearly five to one.
The implication is clear: get it wrong, and you'll be flamed; get it right, and you're using social media to capture and harness a volunteer sales force. Companies that engage in the right way can turn detractors into advocates.
The way social media currently works also varies from country to country. Fifty-four per cent of Indian consumers have used social media to get a customer service response during the past year, 45% in Mexico and 30% in Italy. This contrasts with just 10% in France.
Consumers in the US and Germany are most likely to use social media to get an actual response to help with a service issue (50% of those polled). Those in the UK are more likely to use social media to vent frustration with a bad customer service experience (46%), while consumers in India are most likely to ask questions of others via social media (also 46%).
On average, nearly half of consumers who have used social media to get a customer service response see an improvement in terms of how quickly they feel companies respond to general inquiries or complaints. Consumers in India (80%) and Mexico (72%) are most likely to say that companies have generally improved.
Do the right things
As part of our research for Fishburn Hedges, in-depth, qualitative interviews with social media pioneers inside savvy brands helped us to identify a range of best practices (see box). Companies that make best use of social media for customer service are fleet of foot. They don't let genuinely damaging content linger and fester. But they also are selective about what they respond to, when and how they respond to it.
Just because an individual - or a group of connected individuals - are talking negatively about your product, don't just dive in and try to sort the problem out for effective engagement. It is critically important to understand the full context of the comments and complaints.
There's plenty of evidence that more and more companies are looking to emulate these pioneers. A snapshot of jobs advertised on LinkedIn during one month in 2012 found vacancies for 279 heads of social media and 1,062 social media consultants. What's more, 134,974 roles had "social media" in their job title or job description.
The rise of social media has made service quality more transparent and important than ever before. Brands and services that fail to live up to their promises will draw the opprobrium of disgruntled customers, criticism that often leaves an indelible trace for future customers to find.
Establishing relationships with customers, listening to their comments and complaints, and sorting out problems quickly and politely can stop a complaint dead in its tracks. Our research shows that customer service has become a strategic differentiator in the marketplace.
Social media in customer service is taking off as real people are responding, rather than callers being stuck behind automated call routing and messaging. The best companies are training and releasing their staff to manage this in a professional and responsible manner. Welcome to the new world of 'social business'.
Best practice for social media customer service
1. Don't be paralysed by uncertainty: where call centres arguably erect barriers between brands and customers, social media can remove them and bring proximity. It shouldn't be a psychological straitjacket, so join in - but clearly define your strategy first.
2. Don't let social media define you: your brand must define it. It must be a continuation of the brand using the appropriate channels and not a knee-jerk reaction to following how others are using it.
3. Make more of the emotional insight you have: customer data offers insight into behaviour, but social media takes that to a different level, enabling brands to tap into emotions.
4. Pick your battles - but enter them fast: speed is critical in the real-time world of social media, but brands should not feel the pressure to answer every query put to them.
5. Address structural barriers in the business, not just headcount: there are many ways to resource social, and new hires are not always necessary. Try sharing expertise and removing structural barriers first.
6. Fear not the #fail: No one is perfect and sometimes, just sometimes, it is simply a flash in the pan.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @samknowles
Great partnerships yielding considerably more than the sum of their component parts.
Yesterday evening it was my enormous pleasure to host and to chair a debate on the social media customer. "What's next ... for customer service and social media?" marked the formal launch of a joint research project on the #smcustomer, conceived by the digitally-savvy PR company Fishburn Hedges and reputation research experts Echo, Ebiquity's reputation practice.
The difficulty of the job of chair is in inverse proportion to the quality of the panel; the higher quality the panel, the easier it is to be unobtrustive and pass all but unnoticed. Fortunately, we were blessed with a very high quality panel, made up of:
The event was very well attended - standing room only in Fishburn Hedges largest (and capacious) room. 75+, from the client, social media and consultancy worlds.
Panel and audience addressed the way social media is fundamentally redefining the relationship between consumers and brands. We debated whether improved customer service for the #smcustomer can be explained simply as VIP treatment for those that shout loudest and most publicly (no, if you were wondering). We concluded that social media will continue to deliver better customer experience, and is not just a flash in the pan. And we explored the different models of how brands should respond to keep up with what their customers are increasingly expecting.
But pictures and film are much more impactful than words. So we've decided to host the film of the entire debate, here. And for those with five rather than 75 minutes to spare, here are some vox pops from the panel.
It's such a huge pleasure to work in partnership with complementary agencies that really Get It. Fishburn Hedges really get the importance of benchmarking and measuring reputational issues, of using intelligent insight to drive operational, messaging and overall communications strategy. Last night's event was a clear illustration of this approach.
I can't wait for our next and subsequent engagements.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @samknowles
For the last three days of last week, the great and the good of the world's reputation and PR measurement and evaluation community came together in Dublin under the banner of our representative trade body. It was time for the 4th Annual European Summit of AMEC - the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication for long.
Measuring the outputs, outtakes and critically the outcomes of communications activity designed to sustain and build corporate and brand reputations used to be relatively straightforward. Each reputation research house had its proprietary methodology for aggregating, interrogating and making sense out of media coverage and stakeholder opinion and sentiment.
But then, like an overflowing crèche of boisterous toddlers suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, social and digital media made things a whole lot more complex. Brand management was firmly wrested from the hands of brand custodians. Influential and connected consumers, customers and opinion-formers found platforms for their voices. Dialogue replaced monologue, and many more voices mattered. Brand owners responded with a variety of strategies, from investing in intelligent, bespoke metrics
to burying their heads in the sand and hoping social media would go away.
And those in the business of measuring and evaluating reputation all did something - some did a very great deal of smart stuff - but most of these somethings were idiosyncratic and unaligned. The Darwinian business imperative of dominant competitive advantage did a fundamental disservice to clients looking to compare apples with pears.
Since the advent of social and digital media channels, AMEC, which represents those who matter in the reputation measurement game, has really come into its own in setting and aligning standards across our diverse industry. The first public-facing landmark in this process was the creation of the Barcelona Principles at the 2010 AMEC Summit. Bringing together existing best practice, this set of seven principles set the industry on the right path for measurement across all different facets of earned media, encompassing traditional and the proliferation of social media channels. It also sounded the first (of many) death knells for less meaningful measurement practices, including the zombie pariah of the industry, AVE - Advertising Value Equivalency.
Last year, jumping across the Iberian Peninsula to Lisbon, AMEC's members were introduced to the valid metrics framework, a standardised approach to help ensure reputation research agencies and clients measure the same kinds of metrics in the same kinds of ways. This was an approach of similarity, not a cookie-cutter model. The framework conceptualises all indirect communications as moving a target audience across a spectrum of engagement and empowers those in the business of comms measurement with a common worldview and methodology for mapping progress on that journey.
And so to Dublin last week, where highlights of the dialogue and debate included clients from private and public sector - and their M&E agencies - demonstrating the power of the valid metrics framework in action. On the last day, the standout session saw leading thinkers in the field @kdpaine and @tmarklein unveil AMEC's new, industry-standard template to drive transparency across social media research, analytics and measurement services. The philosophy of Barcelona was followed by the strawman of Lisbon and now - at last - the dynamic working model of Dublin. It truly felt like we'd moved from the talking shop to the workshop, from the ethereal to the practical. We got so down and dirty in Dublin, I have no doubt that delegates will have had the nail brushes out over the weekend.
Industry and trade association events are interesting for many reasons. They're like a prolonged period of ceasefire, when companies usually at one another's throats leave competition in the hotel lobby and work together for everyone's benefit (while at the same time representing their own smart thinking to their peers). They let you learn what the competition is up to, and provide inspiration - often from unexpected sources - for your own innovation. You learn skills and content
relevant for business development, forge alliances and open up prospects through networking.
What I found distinctively different about the Dublin Summit last week was how, under the light-touch leadership of @BarryLeggetter, AMEC is an organisation that can do all of this and more. It's not only representative, it's not only relevant, it's also increasingly - and impressively - action-oriented. The week will lead to what's already been dubbed the Dublin Declaration, the industry will do what it does better, and clients will be better served.
You can't ask more than that. And as befits a grouping of comms measurement professionals increasingly focused on making sense out of social media dialogue, the quality of Twitter action throughout the #AMEC2012 Dublin event was top class. You'll get a sense of the debate in this Traackr A-list, even if the tool to track conversation is not one that delegates chose to endorse.
Roll on 2013.
What is Reputation Research?
In order to thrive in today's ultra-competitive, connected market, companies and brands need to actively monitor and then manage their reputations. This means knowing what those key stakeholders inside and opinion-formers outside the company think of it. It means keeping an informed eye on what the mainstream media are writing and broadcasting about it. And it means making sense of what connected customers, consumers and stakeholders are saying about it. For in the age of social media, brand management is no longer the preserve of the brand manager.
Why should you carry out reputation research?
Companies and brands should conduct reputation research to benchmark how they are performing against market expectations and against competitors. By measuring, monitoring and benchmarking corporate and brand reputation, they can make informed, evidence-based decisions about what they need to do and say differently. Done right, reputation research should inform, define and refine comms strategy and behaviour in the round.
Who uses reputation research?
All sorts of organisations use reputation research. Public, private and third sector. Profit, not-for-profit and education. B2B and B2C. Any and all companies and brands that have a reputation at some level in the public domain. Organisations that have discrete and identifiable stakeholder groups who help to shape opinion and attitude that can impact - positively and negatively - on reputation and performance.
Typical buyers of reputation research include:
Buyers come from a range of disciplines, from corporate communications to marketing, investor relations to marcomms, integrated comms to procurement.
How do you get the best out of reputation research?
To get the best out of reputation research, organisations need to abandon fear of what the research may show and empower and encourage their research partner to ask the questions of the stakeholders and opinion-formers that matter. They should enter into the process of commissioning reputation research with an open mind, ready to change, and not just looking for answers that confirm their hunches. Although they will have their preconceptions of what the answers might be, they need to trust in a skilled research partner to unearth the actionable insights that can enhance communications and business performance, even if those insights sometimes bring uncomfortable truths with them.
What are the costs and benefits of reputation research?
Like all genuinely insightful management information, reputation research comes at a cost, though starting with a toe-in-the-water piece of qual research among targeted stakeholders need not be expensive.
The benefits of reputation research can be huge. By correctly understanding and interpreting how the organisation performs on the reputation drivers that matter to its unique group of stakeholders, the leadership can make the informed, evidence-based decisions they need to improve both reputation and performance. Reputation research is about more than just effective communication. Proactively managing reputation leads to improved business performance.
At Echo Research, Ebiquity's reputation research practice and part of the Ebiquity family since 2011, we focus exclusively on reputation research. Through primary market research, in-depth media analysis and cutting through the clutter of social media, we help companies and brands protect, manage and grow their reputation to help grow their bottom line.
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