In 2012, social media success will depend on building and empowering your community and giving back.
Not too long ago, the use of social media by corporations was considered a novelty. Visionaries such as Morgan Johnston at JetBlue and Frank Eliason, then of Comcast, were among the few who responded to customers online early on, and customers were pleasantly surprised to get a response. (Disclosure: JetBlue is an MWW Group client.)
Today, any company that doesn’t actively monitor and engage with consumers online is seen as a dinosaur that doesn’t care about its customers. But social media pioneers know that while this basic “blocking and tackling” of customer engagement is now essential, it’s no longer enough.
To build trust in this new world, companies must understand the new challenges they’ll face:
- An empowered public – Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has called writing online reviews a patriotic duty. New technologies and social media are catalyzing a great power shift in society from large institutions to individuals. The same technology that enabled citizens in the Middle East to organize and overthrow their governments are allowing consumers to band together and speak out against corporate practices or products they don’t like. As David Kirkpatrick recently wrote in a great article in Forbes, “We have entered the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves.” Unhappy customers, who once would tell a handful of friends and family members about their bad experiences are now able to broadcast to the world as part of a permanent online record.
- A cynical public – Thanks to the financial crisis, a growing skepticism of the media, corporate and political scandals, trust in large organizations, from governments to corporations, is at an all-time low.
- Less control of brand – Until a few years ago, companies owned their message and their brand. Today, brands still spend billions of dollars pushing out carefully packaged, focus-tested messaging points. But customers no longer believe or put much stock in these messages. A recent Nielsen study found that 76% of consumers believe recommendations from friends are the most trusted form of advertisement, and increasingly, they’re sharing with their friends using social media.
So what can your company do to be successful in the social media space?
Unless you’re about to come out with the next iPhone model, customers on social media likely aren’t interested in your canned marketing messages. If you think of social media as another way to advertise, you’ll only be tuned out.
To be relevant and part of the social conversation, your messaging must reflect and reinforce that social media is all about community – and that you are an essential, beneficial member of that community. Old-style corporate philanthropy – writing six-figure checks without any engagement – is seen as buying good will (or political favors) rather than building it. Tellingly, many leaders of the biggest web and social media sites – Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Chris Hughes of Facebook, Ev Williams and Biz Stone of Twitter, Pierre Omdiyar of eBay – are now focusing on efforts that benefit the community.
Here are a few ways your company can do this and generate social media buzz:
- Show how your daily operations are important to society. As one example, with the continued employment crisis, any company that is currently expanding its workforce should actively use social media to recruit candidates. Of course doing so will not only help show the important role you’re playing in the community by creating jobs but will also help find top candidates.
- Adapt your business to benefit society – but be genuine. Though Wal-Mart has received much criticism in recent years, many environmentalists recognize the enormous positive impact of the retailer’s move to stop selling incandescent light bulbs and switch to more environmentally-friendly packaging for their products.
- Use your company’s unique skills and resources to help. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Google’s scientists worked with the State Department to build a “People Finder” database. The company also released Google Earth satellite images to help rescue workers. Similarly, my former employer AT&T as well as Verizon and other U.S. phone companies made all calls to/from Haiti free in the weeks following the earthquake. Two other examples just announced at the Clinton Global Initiative that are sparking positive online conversations are Pepsi’s public-private partnership in Ethiopia to increase chickpea production, and Microsoft’s “Shape the Future” 3 year initiative to bring computer hardware, software and internet service to 1 million US students from low-income families.
- Find ways to help your community. While a number of companies encourage employees to volunteer, more companies can do well by developing programs that help their customers volunteer and reward them for doing so.
- Don’t think you’re the exception to the rule. As management guru Gary Hamel said in the Kirkpatrick Forbes article, “I don’t think it’s crazy to ask if your CEO is the next Mubarak…. The elites—or managers in companies—no longer control the conversation.”
Your company can be a part of the social business revolution – or get left behind.
Richard Robbins, MWW Group Vice President, Senior Digital Strategist, provides senior-level expertise on using digital and social media as an integral part of any successful communications program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @rich1.