Social Media Helps Build Bridges to Customers

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2013-11-21
social media builds bridges with customers

By Samuel Greengard

Over the past few years, social media has revolutionized the business world by changing the way organizations interact with customers, deal with problems and promote their brand. "Social media is at the center of corporate marketing and communications," says Kelly Dempski, managing director at Accenture Technology Labs. "It is integral to how an enterprise spawns its influence."

But social media has evolved far beyond random posts on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube videos spotlighting a new product or service. Increasingly, organizations are looking to build bridges to their customers by using social media tools in far more strategic ways. More often than not, this means thinking in different terms and framing business issues in entirely different ways by using analytics and other tools.

For organizations that get it right, social media has the potential to "fundamentally change customer relationships," states Erich Joachimsthaler, founder and CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, a global strategy, innovation and marketing firm. "It is highly disruptive because it completely redefines the way consumers engage with brands and how organizations interact with consumers."

Unfortunately, he adds, many organizations can't escape the idea of using social media as nothing more than a way to "amplify their message and create owned media and content." Joachimsthaler describes this is a "highly ineffective" approach.

How is the social media space changing? How can organizations develop an effective strategy and use information technology to take a social media initiative to the next level?

Ted Rubin, an independent consultant and co-author of Return on Relationship (Tate Publishing & Enterprises, 2013) says that many organizations don't fully grasp social media. "They view it as a way to market to customers rather than an overarching tool that wraps around the business in a comprehensive way," he points out.

One of the biggest problems organizations face in the social media arena, Accenture's Dempski says, is the lack of a clearly defined enterprise strategy. Although a marketing executive might use social media to respond to customer complaints and promote news and events, it's too often viewed as little more than a channel for communication and is not within the scope of building a digital enterprise.

"The most successful organizations weave together different social media channels and connect them to enterprise systems," he says. Among other things, this includes mobile apps, CRM, email, big data and analytics.

Consultant Rubin argues that social media 2.0 requires fundamentally different thinking. "The old way of doing things was to develop a marketing or business plan with clearly stated methods and campaigns," he explains. "But, today, business conditions change constantly. There's so much data, information and changing consumer sentiment that a business must react on the fly. They must look consumers right in the eye digitally and communicate in a way that doesn't always seem comfortable."

While some organizations eschew social media because they don't feel they have control over what is being said about them, Rubin notes that "what they don't understand is that the conversation takes place whether they're present or not."

Vivaldi Partners' Joachimsthaler adds that business and IT executives shouldn't underestimate the disruptive nature of social media, which redefines and rewires connection points and entire relationships. "The technology is changing the fundamental way businesses interact with consumers," he says.

Nevertheless, social media is more than a numbers game. A huge number of YouTube hits or retweets doesn't necessarily translate into any long-term gain. "There's a need to create a more sustained and overarching strategy that engages people over time and invites them into an ongoing relationship," Joachimsthaler advises.

Creating Brand Advocates

One company that has soared with social media is JetBlue Airways, which now serves 84 destinations in 24 states and 12 countries in the Caribbean, South America and Central America.

"The goal is to make sure our customers feel they are being heard," says Morgan Johnston, manager of corporate communication and social media strategist. "We don't ignore problems and sugarcoat things. We strive to have our core values—openness, transparency, honesty and integrity—shine through. The goal is to create brand advocates and evangelists."

The airline has Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and YouTube accounts and monitors them constantly for posts. It has a total of 25 customer support specialists responding to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ultimate goal is to go beyond that and create a fully engaged presence. "We consider social media the canary in the coal mine," Johnston says.

Team members address problems as they arise, but they also look for opportunities to promote the brand in creative ways. For example, after a New York Jets fan tweeted his desire to fly the airline's themed plane, executives assigned that plane to his flight. On another occasion, the company delivered chicken wings to passengers on a delayed flight after viewing a tweet from a hungry passenger with a craving for them.

"We look for ways to surprise customers," Morgan says. "We try to find ways to create one-to-one relationships and delight them whenever we can. We can't solve every problem or address every request, but we can do things to show that we're engaged and interested in them."

Part of the company's strategy has been to tie together social media across channels. For that reason, it uses a Website and service called SoFly (#JetBlueSoFly) to achieve social integration. But the firm also relies on analytics to study sentiment, trends and consumer behavior at social media sites.

The upshot of all these efforts? JetBlue consistently ranks near the top of Unmetric and NetPromoter scores for all brands in the United States.

Connecting People to Communities

Many of the social media tools and technologies that organizations adopt rely on Web or cloud-based services. This makes it easy to switch on niche capabilities or introduce analytics tools quickly, but it also can create challenges and roadblocks over the long run. There's a strong need for business and IT executives to break down data silos and bridge departmental boundaries in order to reap the full benefits of a social media strategy.

"The reality that a lot of organizations don't want to face is that an effective social media strategy requires hard and sustained work," Rubin says.

It's a concept that's clearly understood by the UN Foundation, which strives to address world problems and provide humanitarian aid under the umbrella of the United Nations. The not-for-profit organization works to connect people and ideas to resources and communities, says Aaron Sherinian, vice president for public relations and communications, and social media plays an increasingly central role in building and connecting groups.

"The reality is that we live in an incredibly connected world," he points out. "People may feel passionate about women's issues or children's health, and they want to empower other people from around the world."

Sherinian explains that social media provides a bottoms-up approach. "When it is used effectively, social media creates an ecosystem that works in a very effective way," he says. "People can interact and coalesce. They can share information and take action as a community."

The foundation has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other services, but it increasingly strives for greater integration across services and channels. "Social media is now a part of our DNA," Sherinian reports. "It's not just about building a platform; it's about enabling interaction and creating a level of engagement that really makes a difference."

The UN Foundation has focused on finding ways to drive discussions around key issues and challenges. It uses software from Dynamic Signal to facilitate and integrate online communication. For example, the organization participates in a Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday) campaign that revolves around participants "celebrating giving in their lives." It also relies on a social media program called +SocialGood, which allows people to share news and stories about events in their communities on a global basis.

The payoff has been significant, according to Sherinian. "The community helps us identify mega-messages, discussion points and targets," he says. "It guides us through strategic processes. We're no longer talking to them. We're now holding up a microphone to their thoughts and ideas."

In fact, the organization views participants as social media ambassadors for the organization. Their posts and tweets influence others in their circle, driving further discussion and contributions. "There's a level of spontaneity and authenticity that isn't possible if we simply push out news and information," he says.

The approach also has yielded significant financial results. The UN Foundation witnessed a 53 percent uptick in donations during the Giving Tuesday 2012 campaign, and it expects an uptick in 2013 as well.

"Things pivot and move faster today than at any point in history," Sherinian points out. "You can't wait days or weeks for approvals. You have to move quickly and have real-time conversations. Leadership must be more open to authentic conversations that don't always go the way you would like or have planned."

In the final analysis, Accenture's Dempski says, organizations must view social media technology as a way to better understand consumer sentiment, capture ideas about new products or product improvements, and engage in an ongoing dialog about a company or brand. It's critical to build the strategy, processes and IT systems to support this new world.

"If you look at what thousands of people are saying in online reviews or examine how they are thinking, you can begin to understand the business and overall marketplace in a way that wasn't possible in the past," he concludes.