Six social media lessons for businesses from 2010

16th Dec 2010 looks back at some of the major developments in business use of social media over the past 12 months and outlines what we have learned.

It has been a steep learning curve for businesses as they move into the world of social media. takes a look back at some of the news and stories that we've covered in the past 12 months, and considers what we've learned about engaging with customers in the social channel.

1. Customers expect more than just push marketing from social media presence

Social media is a channel for two-way interaction, and if your business has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc, it had best be prepared to treat it as such, rather than adopting an outmoded push marketing approach. One business that can testify how badly this can backfire is Eurostar, which hired a social media marketing agency to run its @little_break Twitter feed, tweeting special offers and information about Eurostar destinations.
When its trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, 2,000 passengers were left stranded for several hours. With frustrated commuters left in the dark about the delay, many turned to Twitter to find out more.
Customers don't know (or care about) the difference between marketing and customer service feeds. All they want is answers and the company needs to provide them. The prevalence of mobile phones and other devices means that the power is in the hands of the customer and they can provide instant feedback no matter where they are. When commuters realised that @little_break was unable to help them, it only compounded their fury.
The way customers engage with businesses has changed and any business - no matter how big or small - needs to accept that. Like Richard Baker, who set up a Twitter account to converse with customers while working at Virgin Trains, said in a blog post: "Twitter belongs to everyone in the organisation who cares a jot about their customers. That requires more fundamental changes inside organisations to make sure departments are talking to each other."
Two months later and Eurostar launched an official corporate Twitter feed. Ran by the Eurostar communications team rather than an external agency, Eurostar had begun to learn from its mistakes. But they weren't the first to make this mistake – and they certainly won't be the last.

2. You don't own the conversation any more

Companies may have had control of the conversation before, but that's not the case anymore – as Nestle found out this year. Having already attempted to exert control over the social space by pushing YouTube to remove a Greenpeace video about Nestle (ostensibly on the grounds of copyright infringement), its censors turned to its own Facebook group. With some 'fans' having changed their profile pictures to Greenpeace's mocked-up version, the social media team responsible for Nestle's group lit the touchpaper by announcing they would delete any posts by those using “altered versions of any of our logos”.
Nestle then responded to criticism of this approach with a series of sarcastic responses, the pick of the bunch being "Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus."
The whole sorry affair demonstrates once more that businesses cannot throw their weight around in the Web 2.0 world. Companies cannot control the communities. They don't have ownership of them. And attempts to manipulate and moderate the social world will not be tolerated by users.
Nestle spurned a golden opportunity to engage with customers about a legitimate concern, and communicate the company's line about this issue. Instead, it seemed to forget that - social platform or not – its Facebook group demands the same level of etiquette as any other, and that staff operating on that touchpoint need to be just as professional and courteous as with any other.
And any firm unsure of how to conduct themselves on social platforms could do worse than read the following rules of social etiquette.

3. Be prepared for the fact that social media can attack!

Nestle may have brought much of their misery on themselves, but social media can and does raise the likelihood that your organisation will at some time or another be confronted by angry customers. Social media means companies are more accountable than ever before, and that issues are far more difficult to simply sweep under the carpet!
In the face of a social media confrontation, censorship is not the answer, as Nestle discovered. Ethics of censorship aside, it is virtually impossible in our open media environment to censor content on social media, on whatever grounds. It's rather like trying to stop people talking in the pub. They'll just go somewhere else to carry on the conversation.
Secondly, simply not responding to an issue that plays out on social media is also not viable and can have an incredibly negative impact on a company. When Dave Carroll's guitar was broken during a flight he tried to do the right thing by contacting United for compensation, but nine months of United doing nothing led to his 'United Breaks Guitars' song and YouTube video that may have cost the company at least part of its $180m dip in share price
The United example wasn't so much a social media disaster as a customer service disaster that played out over social media. This is an important difference. If United had responded effectively in the first place, the whole episode could have been avoided. Social media gives companies an unprecedented ability to listen in to customer issues and respond to them, quickly. To ignore a customer's issue is to invite criticism – over any channel, including social media.
Transparency and honesty is always the best policy. Vodafone had a fairly unpleasant couple of days when a computer was left unmanned with its Twitter account on the screen, and an employee thought it would be funny to post a couple of offensive tweets. The offending tweets were removed by Vodafone, but only after photographs of them had been posted all over the internet. But the company came clean, apologised for what had happened in a very human way, explained the error, dealt with the employee, and moved on with no real harm done. This kind of fast and honest action could have avoided a much more serious backlash from customers.

4. Don't believe the naysayers – social media CAN be measured

Although most retailers are using social media in a bid to increase customer engagement, more than half are unable to accurately measure the impact of such activity on sales, raising question marks over future investment, according to a report entitled 'Social Media ROI: Customer Engagement, Brand Interactivity and Revenue' written by analysts the Aberdeen Group.
The analyst also suggested that while there was a lot of interest in such projects at the moment because the channel was new and had "consumer cache", over time retailers would need to determine clear benefits in order to guarantee future investment.
The study indicated that, while defining key performance indicators to help measure the success of campaigns was considered a top priority, only 56% of organisations were currently able to quantify their impact, with 24% relying simply on 'gut feel'.
The findings were supported by another study by digital publishing and training group Econsultancy and digital marketing agency bigmouthmedia which suggested that although half of brands believe that a lack of resources is preventing them from employing social media effectively, just over three quarters admit being unable to come up with return on investment figures to justify further expenditure.
However, according to speaker, author, consultant and co-founder of the Web Analytics Association, Jim Sterne, social media's perceived measurement problem has been hugely over-estimated.
By using time honoured metrics for advertising, Sterne believes that businesses can achieve social media measurability to a degree that should be more than satisfactory - certainly to a level that has historically been satisfactory for the likes of TV, print and radio. "There is unreasonable expectation in measurement. Social media is very measurable. But people expect perfection and it is absurd," says Sterne.
He advises the following metrics:
  • Reach (opportunity to see).
  • Awareness (did they get the message at all).
  • A virality or value metric for the message itself (was it worth repeating, did people remark about it).
  • Influence (a measure of the people who retweeted, looking at how many people are following them and how many retweeted them).
  • Sentiment (while real-time visual analysis, speech recognition and textual analysis have come a long way, and content can now be successfully summarised, when it comes to concluding whether the overall tone is positive or negative, there is still a challenge).
  • Business outcomes (while the conversation may be taking place in the social media world, are they then actually visiting the website – and if they are, what are they doing when they're there? What does their behaviour reveal about them? And finally, did they fulfil the business outcome – whether that be buy the product, download the whitepaper, sign up for the webinar, join the membership, etc).
"What we are able to do is come up with some data, some numbers, that are accurate within some range that give us the value about on equivalent of standard market research and going out and interviewing people,” says Sterne. “So it has value. Is it perfect? No. Is it accurate? No. Is it useful? Well, yes.”
Further work also continues on this area, with The Internet Advertising Bureau having developed a standard framework for measuring the value of social media activity and justifying expenditure on it.

5. Social media guidelines are vital

The proliferation of social networking has posed many problems for brands, including concerns about its impact on productivity in the workplace, the leaking of sensitive corporate information online, the misuse of official company profiles (which Vodafone experienced to its detriment), and the use of networking sites by employees to criticise their own firm (Virgin Atlantic sacked 13 of its cabin crew after they used Facebook to claim that the airline's planes were full of cockroaches).
As a result, according to a survey by the US Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (Cerias) at Purdue University in Indiana on behalf of security software vendor, McAfee, 81% of organisations are restricting the use of at least one tool, whether that be social media, micro-blogging, collaboration, web mail or content-sharing, while 13% are blocking all of them completely.
However, the only way to support the modern digitally empowered customer, according to Josh Bernoff, is to empower your employees with social tools to solve their problems. "One of the things we found is that more than one in three employees are now using technology that is not sanctioned by their company," he says. "They're downloading applications, they're logging into sites like LinkedIn or Facebook or Google Docs, they're using their mobile phone for work even though it is not paid for by the company. This is an attempt, usually, to do their jobs well and companies can either try to block that activity or they can embrace it and say to the employees 'if you can develop new ways to reach out to our customers then we'll support that'. In the companies that we have seen that are successful, the only way that they can move at the speed of the empowered customer is to empower their own employees to come up with solutions for them."
For this reason, the sensible option would appear to be the provision of very clear guidelines stating what an employee can and can't do under the banner of the brand. Yet despite the aforementioned recent high-profile social networking mishaps, three-quarters of organisations continue to have no formal appropriate usage policies in place. A survey of 2,100 employers by recruitment agency, Manpower entitled 'Social Networks vs Management – Harness the Power of Social Media', found that a mere 22% of organisations have introduced guidelines as to how staff should use social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Expect this number to soar in 2011.

6. If you're encouraging user generated content, be aware it can be abused

Social platforms can easily be abused by unscrupulous companies. When Honda unveiled its new Crosstour car on a dedicated Facebook page, it was stunned by the negative response from posters. While the new model was panned by all and sundry, a lone voice – Eddie Okubo - vehemently defended the vehicle on the page and expressed his approval. Unfortunately, Okubo turned out to be Honda's product manager, and the auto manufacturer was forced to remove his comments.
More recently, a PR agency hired by video game developers was taken to court by the US Federal Trade Commission after staff were accused of posing as consumers to post positive reviews on Apple's iTunes store.
It should go without saying that organisations should be honest about their identity on social platforms. But it is worth keeping in mind that not all firms will keep to this code. A recent report by the Institute of Customer Service revealed that customer review facilities top the UK consumer wish list of social media tools. The UKCSI found that nearly half (41%) of the British public view an onsite facility to provide reviews of products and service as a standard element of any good corporate website, with more than half (54%) of consumers using such a facility when it is provided.
With more and more organisations supporting user generated content such as review facilities, there is an increasing need to be savvy about the nature of the content.
In a major story this year, over 400 hotel and restaurant businesses in the UK and US are exploring the possibility of joining a 'group defamation' action against TripAdvisor, in response to what the firms complain are 'false' and 'unfair' reviews being posted on the travel site – some, they claim, written by rival businesses under fake names.
Organisations that feature user generated content such as reviews on their sites are now encouraged to provide a more equitable 'right to reply' tool and look into the authentication of user identities and comments. Firms are advised to run closer checks on the validity, authenticity and transparency of their user generated content and community postings.

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