Earlier this week, I attended a PR Week conference on reputation management strategy. A chance to take the temperature of client and agency thinking on measurement of corporate and brand reputation; a chance to network with peers, rivals, clients and prospects; and, a chance to reflect on best practice. And perhaps - above all - a chance to think, to reflect on the dominant themes shaping industry understanding of how best to assess the impact of earned media and stakeholder opinion.
Practitioners, both agencies and client side, are all now well aware of the ways in which social media has changed brand and reputation management for good. Brand custodians now see only partial control as the new normal, and new paradigms and orthodoxies are really starting to take shape. And while many have built and are proud to showcase new methodologies of reputation measurement, what surprised me was that so many are still making up their minds about what they should be measuring, how and why.
And that focus is the nub of continued confusion, I think. If you're focused on the outputs of comms and the impact of these outputs on reputation, you're only ever going to scratch the surface. What matter are outcomes. It's not so much what's been produced - from retweets and likes to good old-fashioned column inches - it's what those outputs have done to change attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and advocacy. And it's only by linking communications measurement to business objectives and outcomes that we can know if there was any point doing what we set out to do.
The conference got off to a blistering start, with Conrad Bird from the Prime Minister's Office giving a compelling case history of the six-department GREAT Britain campaign. Just ten months old, riding on the coattails of the Olympics and triumphant in its recent "BOND IS GREAT Britain" activation around Skyfall, the campaign has already grown UK plc by a claimed quarter of a billion pounds on a ten-country investment of just tens of millions.
We learnt lots from Sky, Shell and Arcelor Mittal. I found Arcelor Mittal's Ian Louden's definition of reputation particularly appealing: Reputation + Aspiration = Brand, where Reputation is what people remember about us based on what we've done historically, Aspiration is our future promise, and so Brand is the whole concept of who we are, of what we stand for.
The savage independence of Stephen Jolly, Director of External Affairs and Communications from Cambridge University, was a blast of fresh air after lunch. In the same session, we also learnt that Mumsnet now makes as much as 25% of its revenue from insight alone, conducted directly with among its membership.
The day was rounded out by two barnstorming performances. First up was Alex Pearmain, the head of social media at O2 with whom I shared a platform earlier this year to launch the #smcustomer research we at Echo had conducted with Fishburn Hedges. Alex's storytelling about the dynamics and lessons learned from adopting a tongue-in-cheek yet respectful tone of voice during O2's mass outage last year are getting richer and more rounded. Alex will be missed when he moves on from O2 in the near future, but O2's loss is very definitely Brands2Life - and its clients' - gain.
The keynote to close the day came from PwC's Head of Reputation and Policy, Richard Sexton. He skilfully pulled together a number of key strands about earning and maintaining trust. He boiled it down to having more authentic conversations with the people and stakeholders who matter.
Delivering on your promises.
Doing the right thing.
In the age of social media more than ever, you can't demand to be trusted. You have to earn it.
Social media has transformed the way consumers interact with brands.
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:
- Tara Evans (@taraevans), personal finance journalist for This Is Money, part of Daily Mail Online.
- Alex Pearmain (@AlexPearmain), head of PR and social media at O2.
- Kyle Thorne (@VirginAtlantic - though not all by himself), social relations manager at Virgin Atlantic.
- Eva Keogan (@nixdminx), head of innovation at Fishburn Hedges, and blogger extraordinaire.
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.