Businesses that don’t listen to or speak with customers are missing an opportunity to demonstrate adeptness and vision. Seems obvious, but it’s not—which is why it’s one of the lessons that form the basis for Brian Solis’s new book Engage!: The Complete Guide for Brands and Businesses to Build, Cultivate, and Measure Success in the New Web. When he isn’t hobnobbing with celebrities such as actor Ashton Kutcher—who, as cofounder of social media production company Katalyst Media, wrote the book’s foreword—Solis uses his role as principal of consultancy FutureWorks to urge businesses to interact with and learn about their customers. Solis, who also happens to be one of CRM magazine’s Influential Leaders of 2010, spoke with Editorial Assistant Juan Martinez about how and where to have these conversations.
CRM magazine: You could have written about any aspect of social media. Why customer engagement?
Brian Solis: Any business, or entrepreneur, or thought leader looking to excel in social media in a way that’s meaningful will find no shortage of articles like “Top 10 Ways to Increase Your Fans on Facebook,” but the only thing [they provide] is inspiration trumped by confusion. The more you read, the more questions you have. The smarter you try to get, the less smart you get. This all came home to me when my wife asked for advice on how to make her company more interactive. I spent a whole bunch of time researching what’s really out there and what isn’t. That research became the foundation for Engage!—a book that teaches you how to get the answers necessary to leverage social media and the opportunities ripe within it.
CRM: Several social media analytics tools have recently come out. Are numbers as important as we make them out to be? Which ones should we pay attention to?
Solis: You have access to more data than ever before. You have to figure out what you can do with the data that you couldn’t do before. Simple numbers, like referrals, become important. You want to know where customers are finding you so you can invest and increase your presence there. The numbers are symptomatic of a bigger discussion that needs to happen: Instead of looking at it from a reactive standpoint you have to think about what you want to cause, change, and measure, and then engage with that in mind. Increasing referrals, customer retention, sales, and lead generation—with those numbers we can get into specifics; once we [get into specifics] we can build and measure programs that show progress on those fronts. The glut of analytics does little more than give you numbers. If you can’t determine what to do, then it’s all useless.
CRM: Allowing employees to engage with customers risks a public relations disaster. What do you tell companies that fear the negativity associated with transparency?
Solis: A lot of people who aren’t engaged in social media as aggressively or practically as they should be will point to Nestlé and say, “That’s exactly why we’re on the sidelines.” [Editors’ Note: See “Crashing the Community,” June 2010, for more on Nestlé’s Facebook fiasco.] When you engage, you invite negative feedback, but remember: The biggest risk is being absent. Transparency and authenticity are risks—and they mean very little in the world of successful engagement. With engagement you want to operate within the realm of believability: You have to have some sense of awareness of what people want and structure your engagement around that.
One of the lesser-known risks? If you don’t empower your spokespeople, they’re not going to have the ability to impact perception. Take the Southwest Airlines/Kevin Smith fiasco. [Editors’ Note: The film director blogged and twittered about Southwest personnel asking him to deplane.] The thing really started to flare up when the Southwest spokesperson engaged Smith. He was trying to apologize but didn’t have solutions or the ability to fix anything.
Another risk that many don’t realize is putting junior individuals on the front line of your brand because they seem to understand Facebook and Twitter. You’re entrusting the brand, the voice, the persona—the value—to someone who knows how to hit “Update” or add a new friend.
CRM: How can companies use dashboards and widgets to better engage?
Solis: When you look at Tweetdeck or Radian6 you get these dashboards that offer varying levels of capability. I like to plug in keywords related to my company, my competitors, and the market. I run one of those searches for each column. And I run word clouds so I can see the other words or topics used in conjunction with my keywords. Dell, for example, will use any of those columns to find instances of people having issues with [Dell products]. Once that number of people hits a certain number they put a team on the issue before it becomes a full-blown problem.
CRM: Social media changes so quickly. How long will these lessons apply?
Solis: There will be books that will address the social network of the month, but I believe the lessons and the methodology and the way to find answers and introduce value into one of those communities is timeless. That’s what Engage! is about. And that’s why it took so long to write!