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Five social media lessons from 2014

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11th Dec 2014
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It has been another eventful year in the world of social media, as the platforms and players continue to increase their influence in the wider business landscape.

Facebook began work on a professional version of its site, while social networks sought out new ways to monetise their operations, with Pinterest the latest to launch paid ads – much to the chagrin of its users.

Meanwhile, brands have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of social to both support and engage their customers – although that’s not to say that there hasn’t been the odd social media faux pas, of course.

With this in mind, MyCustomer 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 across social channels this year.

1. Negative customer reviews: Best practice still baffles businesses

Social media may have been with us for some time now, but many brands are still working out the rules of engagement. And nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to responding to negative customer reviews.

Concerns about bad reviews are  understandable – research by Trustpilot this year revealed that 77% of UK consumers using the internet read online reviews before making a purchasing decision. 89% of these consumers report they are influenced by negative online reviews, with 78% claiming that negative online reviews could deter them from making a purchase altogether.

Furthermore, it only takes on average just 3-4 onilne negative reviews before over a third of consumers to stop purchasing from a brand. Worrying times, and not least because of growing concerns about the validity of reviews.

A recent study by researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management and Northwestern University found one in 20 reviews of a prominent US retailer’s product were “submitted by customers with no record of ever purchasing the product they are reviewing". The report went on to note that "these reviews are significantly more negative than other reviews.” In other words, it looks pretty likely that a fifth of this brand's reviews were posted by people who’d never even purchased the item that they were discussing so negatively.

One sector that is particularly sensitive to the influence of online reviews is the travel and tourism industry. A few years ago, hundreds of hotels and restaurant businesses threatened to take review site TripAdvisor to court over what they viewed as 'unfair' reviews. And smaller businesses in particular continue to voice their concerns about the damage that could be done by a single unrepresentative review on a big community. 

In direct response to this, a growing number of businesses are now implementing clauses in their customer contracts to prevent customers from writing anything negative about the contractor - or in some cases, any kind of public review at all. In March, the Huffington Post reported about a bride who was threatened with legal action over a review of her wedding photographer in which she commented negatively on the value of the service. "It wasn't even that bad,” she said in an interview, speaking of her review. “I still gave them four out of five stars!" Be that as it may, her wedding photos were detained by the company and they threatened her with court proceedings should she not remove her online post.

And these events were echoed a few months later on the other side of the pond, when the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool caused a minor media storm by charging a Cumbrian couple £100 for posting an undesirable TripAdvisor review. Sure enough, the hotel’s policy contained the following small-print: "Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not. For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review." Following a complaint to Blackpool Trading Standards and the growing furore in the media, the hotel announced it would waive the charge and announced they planned to remove the clause from future guest contracts

But are these kinds of clauses ever a good idea?

Jan Vels Jensen, chief marketing officer at review site Trustpilot, told MyCustomer that such clauses manipulate review systems and deceive consumers: “The risk of being found out – and subsequently labelled untrustworthy – completely outweighs the potential rewards. The negative attention could ruin your brand."

Glen Collins, CEO of Review Centre, added: “This is a very worrying and dangerous trend and hopefully it won’t become common place. The law is already in force to protect reputable businesses – if someone leaves a review, a comment, a blog post or indeed any other sort of communication that is libellous or defamatory, the law is very clear about the actions that can be taken. Review sites like ours take this very seriously, which is why we take down anything of this nature that is brought to our attention.”

To those tempted into implementing these clauses because of a current excess of negative reviews, Collins added: “If companies are finding that they are getting a large volume of negative reviews I would say it’s worth reading them and figuring out if there’s some aspect of their business that is within their control to improve rather than trying to add rather clumsy gagging orders to their customer contracts.”

For those that think they have identified a potentially fraudulent review, Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, VP of marketing EMEA at Bazaarvoice, recommended the following action:

“The first thing [brands] need to do is respond to the review itself. They should respond to the review questioning, if someone’s complaining about the product, what exactly the problem is, or try to understand if it is indeed a product issue. Find out where it is and get as much information as possible. Raising it online but then taking it offline is a good idea, to offer an area where they can have a discussion with an individual to find out what the issue and concern is.

“If the process of responding to a review raises concerns or evidence that the review is fraudulent, the second thing they need to do is track down the source of the review and look at the profile of the person. Obviously there will be disclosure of information around that profile. They can try reaching out to that individual and, if it’s on an external site, they can look to contact the administrator of that external site to get the review removed once they can actually prove that it is a fraudulent review. But what they also need to do is research where else this individual is posting these fraudulent reviews.”

Of course, not all negative reviews are fraudulent – every company unfortunately has some disgruntled customers from time to time. But brands should view these as an opportunity to improve.

Udayan-Chiechi highlighted the example of one retailer that went through a spell of receiving very poor reviews on their own-brand television – but it couldn’t work out why. They used advanced content tagging to reveal that, in actual fact, people were very happy with the set itself, but words like ‘sticker’ and ‘residual’ were appearing over and over again. Looking into this further, the company realised that the sticker which came on the new sets was difficult to peel off and was leaving a sticky residue behind. They fixed the sticker issue and it was problem solved - thanks to the reviews. 

Elsewhere, other organisations use  reviews for customer insight – any that carry less than four-and-a-half out of five stars gets flagged and fed back, and is then used to improve its business processes.

Remember, negative reviews can be an opportunity, not just a challenge. Trustpilot research has indicated that 15% of consumers are actually ore likely to do business with a company after reading a response to a negative review that was resolved.

2. Social commerce begins to gain traction

In 2014, both Facebook and Twitter unveiled buy buttons that will allow customers to purchase products without leaving their social media feed. Elsewhere, marketers and brands can also enable social commerce transactions through Twitter’s #AmazonCart hashtag that links directly to the Amazon’s shopping cart, while Twitter and American Express’ Sync partnership allows payment by hashtag. Twitter’s partnership with CardSpring will also allow online Twitter offers to be redeemed in store through a seamless link to a customer’s credit card.

Yes, 2014 was the year that social commerce started to crystallise. It is worth noting that there have been false dawns before – for instance, when retailers abandoned their Facebook stores in their droves after failing to attract sufficient business. At the time, Forrester Research’s Sucharita Mulpuru equated Facebook commerce to “trying to sell stuff to people while they’re hanging out with their friends at the bar.”

But according to some, the social commerce revolution has now begun in earnest.

The news that Facebook was trialling a ‘Buy’ button for social postings - which gives ecommerce providers a direct link through from their adverts on the social network to product payments, without users needing to be taken off-site – was initially met with a mixed response. Some condemned it as another failed social experiment. But others described it as “revolutionary”, while research from Offerpop, predicted that the latest innovation, as well as similar developments at Twitter, would prove to be the catalyst for social commerce success.

According to Offerpop, Facebook and Twitter’s new commerce capabilities represent “a new evolution in social marketing” allowing seamless social transactions for mobile consumers and enabling users to immediately buy the items recommended by a friend or trusted retailer. Offerpop recently surveyed marketers and retailers to understand their approach to social marketing and social commerce for the upcoming 2014 Christmas shopping season.

According to the findings:

  • Social marketing/commerce budgets are growing: 67% of companies plan to spend more on social media over the 2014 Christmas period than 2013.
  • Instagram is Hot: 73% of marketers say Instagram is the breakout social network of 2014.
  • But Facebook is Still King: 92% of marketers plan to spend majority of social marketing budget on Facebook this Christmas.
  • Companies increasingly view social as a sales channel: 62% of marketers’ primary goal for 2014 is to extend brand reach and drive sales.

The evolution of social commerce will open up big opportunities for retailers to directly generate sales through social marketing efforts, according to Offerpop, closing the sales loop on social media in a nearly frictionless transaction.

Also influencing the potential growth of social commerce is the changing social media demographic. Offerpop noted that this Christmas will feature a maturing Facebook platform that is evolving into an advertising and sales channel with a growing adult audience:

  • 71% of online US adults use Facebook, according to Microsoft.
  • Facebook’s growth is now fuelled by an older demographic. The 54-plus age group on Facebook grew by more than 80% between 2011 and 2014 and the 35-54 age group grew by more than 41%, according to Microsoft. Facebook is also registering highest growth among college alumni (59% growth), according to Microsoft.

“Social media’s maturation into a commerce platform is occurring rapidly and opening up huge opportunities for brands,” predicted Kevin Bobowski, vice president of marketing at Offerpop. “A platform that many brands previously used only for engagement is evolving into an end-to-end solution that empowers brands to connect with, engage and sell to consumers in one seamless social experience. The 2014 Christmas shopping season will be the first test of brands’ ability to leverage these new social commerce tools and a gauge of social networks’ power to convince consumers to purchase products directly through Facebook and Twitter.”

Overall, Ana de Jesus of Shoutlet identified at least six different social commerce approaches that brands can currently adopt to capitalise on social media.

  1. On-channel social shopping. This happens when brands use their social network pages directly for brand promotion. 
  2. Etail social shopping. Etail social shopping happens when users share with their social community products that are connected with a specific etailer.
  3. Mobile social shopping. With mobile purchasing being a big part of social shopping, retailers started benefiting from this channel through technology such as UK-founded Shopcade. App holders can save items and get alerts when those go on sale and receive relevant recommendations based on their social and traditional ecommerce data.
  4. Social selling sites. Typically social selling sites are used within the fashion industry, where people can discover new products, brands and trends and might be able to share their style by posting photos, ask for and give advice. 
  5. Social gifting and discounts. Social gifting is a well-established mean of social selling in the USA, but in Europe it still remains in its infancy. It enables people to give free and discounted gift cards to friends on social networks for brands of their interest, incentivising engagement and purchase.
  6. Offline social shopping. Social shopping is not conducted exclusively online and retailers have in fact tried to capitalise on in-store social selling to increase offline purchases. An example of this was conducted by London’s largest shopping centre, Westfield, through the Tweet Mirror. Launched back in 2010 by Dutch technology company Nedap Retail, the mirror is placed in store enabling shoppers to share with their friends how an outfit looks via Twitter whilst still in the changing room.  

So how can brands choose the right social shopping approach?

All brands are different, and so are the ways their consumers interact, therefore organisations must first understand their customers’ online social relationships before deciding which social shopping approach will drive most sales conversions.  

Roy Jugessur, head of EMEA for social relationship platform Shoutlet, told MyCustomer: “Some retailers have grown product sales by double digits, simply by adding social shopping elements to their distribution channels, but retailers won’t be able to achieve this if they don’t take an informed approach to social shopping. With so many opportunities available to retailers nowadays, firstly, they must understand where customers feel compelled to comment, share or gather information related with their products.”

Commenting on the challenges brands are faced with, Jugessur noted: “Tracking the return on investment from social shopping paths can be considered a challenge to many retailers given the nature of social media. This is where technology can help monitor from the moment a fan engages with specific content through to purchase, so they can clearly track the benefits social shopping can bring to their business and justify to the boardroom for further investment in social.”

As social shopping has become part of the way consumers interact with and make brand purchases, marketers need to access what is the right approach that will appeal to their consumers. In-depth analysis to their online social behaviour driven through social campaigns, surveys and traditional ecommerce data can help organisations identify what this behaviour is. With this knowledge, brands will then be empowered to drive meaningful social shopping experiences for their consumers that will consequently impact on sales.

3. Facebook has made social media marketing harder!

In the year that Facebook turned 10, an unprecedented level of criticism from the marketing community threatened to sour the celebrations.

In a stinging attack, Forrester Research principal analyst Nate Elliott blasted Facebook for focusing too little on driving genuine engagement between companies, while also suggesting that marketers' paid ads rarely target their intended audience.

Despite every large company now marketing on Facebook, Elliott has claimed that “relatively few find success”, supporting this assertion with research indicating that satisfaction with the business value from Facebook marketing ranked below not only more traditional disciplines such as search marketing and email marketing, but also other social platforms such as Twitter and YouTube.

Elsewhere, other stats emerged that caused further concern amongst the marketing fraternity, with evidence indicating that the number of users that brands could reach organically had started plummeting. Two years ago, Facebook itself touted that page posts reached 16% of a brand's fans organically. But by February this year, that number had dropped to 6%, according to research by Ogilvy & Mather – with suggestions that this could even drop as low as 1-2% in the future.

Following in the footsteps of these stories, it was therefore unsurprising that Facebook’s subsequent decision to downgrade the visibility of organic brand content and prioritise paid-for brand content in user’s News Feeds, was met with criticism and disappointment. To some, this appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for their social media content marketing model, with Facebook adopting a ‘pay for play’ model.

But the message from other marketers was simple: stop whining and get used to it! Danyl Bosomworth of Smart Insights, for instance, argued that the same rules of marketing still apply to Facebook’s new model, but with a twist. He advised that marketers could do worse than follow these tips from Mari Smith to maximise reach on the social network:

  1. Post more often – at least three times a day.
  2. Experiment with posting at different times of the day, including outside business hours.
  3. Post a mix of your own content (short tips + links to your longer blog posts) + other people’s content that you curate from a variety of sources
  4. Post directly on your Page and also share posts from other relevant Pages.
  5. Include @ tags of related Pages in your posts. This may help create more visibility in the news feed of the fans who have liked the tagged pages.
  6. Repost your own evergreen content.
  7. Mix up the post types: status updates, links, photos, videos, offers, events, milestones and cover image changes.
  8. Test post length from super short (<120 characters) to much longer (63k is the max!).
  9. Check your Insights for when your fans are online and be sure to post during these times (as well as outside, per tip #2).
  10. Come up with a theme for each day of the week and publish posts pertaining to that day’s theme. Also, look for ways to crowd source content and featured input from your fans.
  11. Compare your reach performance against the average at: http://barometer.agorapulse.com/
  12. And, of course PAY for more reach on posts that impact your bottom-line, using the Boost post option or go into your Ads Manager/Power Editor.

4. Consumer expectations of social media support are outstripping company capabilities

Five years on from when Frank Eliason sent his first tweet at @comcastcares, social media customer support continues to mature, and according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report, 80% of retail companies now use social media for customer services.

In many cases, of course, this is still at a very basic level – often consisting of a social media manager responding to disgruntled customers that have aired their complaints on social channels, before transitioning the conversation onto traditional channels where the problems can be resolved.

The issue, however, is that customers are already expecting a much more sophisticated level of service over social channels than this. Indeed, expectations are far outstripping the reality of what the vast majority of brands are able to offer.   

A survey by Our Social Times revealed that 42% of social media users now expect a response from brands on Twitter within one hour, something that only 9% of brands are presently able to deliver. According to Jeremy Taylor of Our Social Times, this response time is “effectively fuelling customer dissatisfaction”, making the need for contact centre involvement all the more vital as the number of queries continues to increase.   

Yet social media integration into contact centres is still relatively rare - Frost & Sullivan estimate that only a third (38%) of enterprises now offer some form of social media support in their contact centres.

A study by Coleman Parkes indicates that companies are under-estimating just how important the social media channel is for customer support. 68% of service providers thought that social media was a plan B for customers who weren’t able to get hold of the company by phone. However, half of consumer respondents report that they actually prefer contacting companies via social media – as opposed to phone – when in need of customer support.

IBM’s Guy Stephens, one of the pioneers in the social customer service space through his work at the Carphone Warehouse, has lamented the lack of progress that has been made in the last five years. Earlier this year, he wrote: “We need to cajole and provoke ourselves, shake ourselves out of the current stupor that we find ourselves in and move the conversation on. We need to not be content with the cliches and appropriated words that increasingly litter the social landscape. We need to genuinely shift the impetus of the conversation to our customers. We need to study their language, their words, their actions, their behaviours. They are the ones who know. They are the ones who act on instinct; it all comes naturally to them.

“They are the ones who have always told us the answers openly, directly, without prejudice. We listened, well sometimes, but we just weren't prepared to hear. And by the way, they – the customers – are the ones we magically turn in to between the hours of 5pm – 9am and on weekends. Companies need to stand tall, be brave, be bold. As I often quote and now paraphrase in my own words: companies need to get down off that camel! And in IBM-speak – be essential.”

There are positive signs, however. A number of outsourcing specialists are seizing on the opportunity to resolve the common social media obstacles of resources and expertise, by offering 24/7 customer support services to brands. Analyst house Ovum also recently reported how SMEs are planning to respond to the growing need for more effective social support by increasing in personnel.

There is also innovation in this field. KLM has often been heralded as a social enterprise pacesetter, from the early days of its ‘KLM Surprise’ experiment on Twitter, to connecting passengers with one another via Facebook in the 2012 ‘Meet and Seat’ initiative. And as of July, KLM has been offering 24/7 customer support in ten different languages, via its LinkedIn company page.

But arguably most encouragingly, that are indications that the number of organisations embedding social media into their contact centres is set to soar, with research from Interactive Intelligence Group predicting that 63% of brands will have call centres handling social media enquiries within 18 months.

However, Our Social Times CEO Luke Brynley-Jones has suggested that the complexity associated with integrating social into service will still be a major obstacle to meeting customer expectations. In an interview earlier this year, he highlighted the biggest challenge facing even the leaders in the social customer service space.

He noted: “The key challenge is about getting systems of engagement connect up with systems of record. How do we track engagement across multiple channels and record the outcomes for future reference? It’s making this process seamless that results in rapid issue resolution and increased customer satisfaction. Currently, even in the largest organisations admit to having a ‘patchwork quilt’ of technologies, so we’re a way off social customer service nirvana yet.”

5. 2014 was the year when social video went mainstream

In 2013, the power of social video began to become apparent, with the launch of Vine and Instagram’s video capabilities demonstrating the appetite for short, shared online video. With research by Global Toll Free Number suggesting that video traffic will account for 67% of all consumer web traffic by 2017, brands are also increasingly embracing it as a powerful marketing tool. And 2014 has arguably been the year that social video went mainstream.

As well as continuing to utilise YouTube as a platform to post videos built for sharing, brands such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell have also run campaigns on Snapchat, an app that allows users to share short disappearing video clips.

With video harnessing a key feature of smartphones, social networks have also latched onto it to refresh the type of content from brands that appear in users’ news feeds. Both Tumblr and Instagram injected video ads into their feeds this year, but it was of course the announcement that Facebook was adding auto-play Premium Video Advertising to its network that made the biggest news.

“The use of video takes storytelling to a whole new level,” Holli Brown, digital marketing executive at ramarketing, told MyCustomer at the time. “You know the saying ‘a picture paints a thousand words’? Well, the use of a video can paint a thousand more. The introduction of Instagram Video and Vine has dramatically changed the way Facebook users absorb information from their news feed, meaning they’re much more likely to view a six second video then spend five minutes reading a paragraph.

“Using video opens up opportunities for any type of business to connect with their target audiences, whether it be to give fans a sneak preview of a film, for brands to promote a new product or for industry leaders to share tips and tricks.”

There is certainly plenty of potential for marketers with social video, as long as they tread carefully. “To utilise it effectively requires more time, planning and investment than other mediums,” says Edward Bass, social media consultant at Amaze, “which may present a challenge to brands without a carefully considered content strategy and firm view on their visual identity."

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