March 21 marked the fifth anniversary of Twitter, which began when cofounder Jack Dorsey tweeted that he was “just setting my twttr,” according to Time magazine. On February 4, Facebook celebrated its seventh anniversary with more than 500 million active users and more than 70 language translations. Twitter also boasts some lofty numbers: 140 million tweets daily and a record of about 7,000 tweets per second just after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan March 11.
Nearly a decade old, social media has proven itself much more than fad; instead, it is an ever-increasing hub of interactions and opportunities, especially for businesses. So now that everybody knows Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere, and data are readily available, how can businesses best leverage the technology on which consumers spend about 700 billion minutes per month?
One thing not to do, according to the experts, is commit the mistake that most companies make: Set up a Facebook fan page or Twitter account and put it on autopilot. Katy Keim, chief marketing officer at Lithium Technologies, says focusing merely on “being on a social channel” won’t accomplish any business objectives, urging companies instead to emphasize the “social” in “social media” from the beginning. Keim warns against pumping messages or marketing sound bites through your Twitter feed or Facebook wall because customers will see right through that approach.
“Simply having a Facebook page and pushing your messages through it is not social. It’s traditional marketing through social channels,” Keim observes. “And it may seem to work for a while, but in pretty short order you need to give your customers something more interesting and relevant or they’ll go away. Sustaining a social presence takes a commitment to engaging customers.”
Although tweets and Facebook posts limit your word count, customers can discern instantly whether there is a person at the other end of that feed or a mindless bot. It’s important to establish that a person, complete with concerns, interests, and predilections, manages the account and has authentic interactions with interested parties, fans, and followers.
Another approach to avoid, according to inboxQ CEO Joe Fahrner, is to throw in a couple of specified links in some tweets, believing it will make a big difference. Context is key, he says, describing this method as “a very untargeted, low-quality, scattered approach.” Pumping out links without descriptions or directions would disinvite consumers from engaging with you altogether as fans and as customers.
“Blasting messages through a social channel is not social marketing,” Keim affirms.
“The best approach that we have seen is the exact opposite of that,” Fahrner says. “One of the unique things about Twitter is to get that context of who the person is, who is tweeting, what are they all about in general, and then specifically, based on the context of tweets, what do they need in that moment?”
Fahrner shares a hypothetical, but typical, situation in which a Twitter user might tweet that he needs a pair of running shoes at a cheap price. Users are always crowd-sourcing for a variety of things—from where to have lunch in a new town to what purchases to make to advice on choosing the right brand.
If you are a running shoes retailer, you have been afforded everything you need to know to make a successful introduction as a brand, Fahrner says.
“Right there, even though it’s only 140 characters, that person has told you that they’re cost-conscious and what their needs are,” Fahrner says. “That’s an opportunity if your Web site sells that product.”
Instead of first tweeting a specific Web page of running shoes at the consumer, Fahrner suggests engaging with the customer and then offering a discount with a link. Such an approach would exemplify direct marketing with immediate ROI implications. But Fahrner also points out the benefits on longer-term ROI of social media that come from becoming a trusted voice and source for information-seeking customers. By providing knowledge and time when potential customers have questions, you can appear as a thought leader in a particular field.
“Maybe they don’t have plans to purchase a new pair of running shoes, but they may need advice on how to break in a new pair,” Fahrner says. “If you can engage with them and help them with that problem, you can become a go-to source because they trust you and you have established that relationship over social media.”
Sharing that information, or even starting a conversation on a specific topic, such as how to break in running shoes, not only only gives you a space to chat with customers, but it also encourages them to chat with one another.
“Give your customers something purposeful to do and let them engage with each other,” Keim advises. “The power of social comes from people talking to each other, not simply listening to what you have to say.... It’s about peer-to-peer engagement.”
Sanjay Dholakia, CEO of CrowdFactory, a social targeting platform, advocates using that peer-to-peer engagement with what he considers social media’s two biggest strengths: amplification and acquisition.
“If the message, promotion, or value proposition that you put in the hands of the crowd is compelling enough and targeted correctly, then your audience will spread the word to everyone they know,” Dholakia says. “This allows you to extend your reach dramatically without having to pay extra for that reach.”
Consumers trusting recommendations by their peers (about 78 percent, according to CrowdFactory) cannot be ignored, he says. Pair that statistic with the stark 15 percent who trust advertisements from a company, and the true gold mine of social media is revealed.
“With our customers, we see conversion rates of social traffic that is as much as 300 percent higher than traffic through other channels,” Dholakia says. “Intuitively, that makes sense—I am much more likely to buy something or take some action when a friend mentions it versus when a brand mentions it.”
When facilitating or engaging in those conversations, many companies tend to overthink responses or what constitutes “social media etiquette.” Christopher Morace, senior vice president of business development at Jive Software, advises applying the same etiquette you would when engaging in any polite conversation with your public, Internet or not.
“When you step back, it’s not radically different from the way we engage with the public traditionally,” Morace says. “The big difference is, and the advantage is, now a huge amount of your company can [engage].”
Morace reflects on the days when you would only train a subset of your company to speak with customers. With the proper use of social media, he says, anyone can act as a spokesperson for a brand, calling that “a great thing.” Although Morace does advocate light training for customers, as well as monitoring employees to ensure appropriate conduct, the benefits outweigh the concerns.
“What a huge benefit to be able to go from maybe 10 people who can represent your company to literally thousands,” Morace says. “[The] companies that are doing this well really encourage the employees to be authentic.”
Fahrner agrees, noting that the customers who interact with inboxQ over social media yearn for an authentic voice from the staff as much as they do for information.
“The customers that I work with get the fact that engineers are engineers,” Fahrner explains. “They love to connect directly with engineers and get the real scoop and hear what’s going on.”
Quantifying the Benefits
In a white paper titled “The Business Value of Social Business,” Jive determined that of business respondents who allowed their employees to actively use social media, 39 percent noted an increase in employee correctness, as well as a 30 percent rise in employee satisfaction. Jive attributes those hard-dollar ROI percentages to employees feeling more engaged and connected to the community through social media.
The same report also mentions that new social business tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, incorporate socialization capabilities that ease participating and being fully productive within a business.
The report estimates the average knowledge worker needs between four and six months to learn the necessary skills and processes to perform his job successfully. However, during that period, employees cost the organization money because they are functioning at less-than-optimal productivity while commanding a full salary. At the same time, those employees are more likely to slow down other workers by asking questions.
Using social media, according to this Jive report, reduces “on-boarding time” by sharing knowledge in unstructured formats that are simple to search. Leveraging Twitter and Facebook as business tools also encourages casual micro-communications among employees, in which informal exchanges transfer knowledge faster without significantly disrupting tasks.
Taking advantage of social media within an organization can also cut time invested in meetings. Respondents reported to Jive a 26 percent decrease in time spent on meetings, commenting that meetings “worked better” when coupled with social business tools. Because of social mechanisms for capturing unstructured information through tags, other collaboration tools, and annotation tools, meetings proceeded at a quicker pace.
Survey respondents demonstrated a 27 percent decrease in duplicated tasks because social business tools made it easier for them to learn what colleagues were working on and to learn whether all or part of a task they were about to undertake had been done by another employee. In addition, Jive discovered that respondents reported a 37 increase in overall productivity, with a 32 rise in ideas generated within the organization.
Technical costs also can be lowered as a result of social media. For example, Jive was selected by StrongMail, an email marketing and social media company, in March and StrongMail’s customers then saw a 50 percent reduction in their use of technical support. The reason was faster access to resources within the Jive-powered customer community.
Morace attributes StrongMail’s success to a full-throttle implementation, with 86 percent of customers actively using the community and a 100 percent employee adoption rate.
Strengthen Integration, Narrow Focus
“I think [StrongMail is] a pretty powerful success story in how you deploy social technology in a way that actually is reducing cost or improving customer satisfaction,” Morace says. “Yes, the number of folks on the community are high, and, yes, it’s great to link to the Facebook fans and the Twitter followers and actually pull them into the community. But at the end of the day, you really want to be hitting the top line and the bottom line of the business.”
Keim expresses similar thoughts, pointing out that a common misstep organizations make with social media is failing to connect the platforms to broader strategies. Although using social media as a simple broadcast channel is considered fairly effective in terms of brand advocacy, not using social efforts to gain consumer insights or advance relationships and retention of customers is a wasted opportunity, Keim says.
Morace observes that many customers of Jive have gotten the memo and are already moving fast in all of the aforementioned arenas.
“What we’re seeing now is that people are really getting down to business in terms of attaching social media initiatives to an actual process,” Morace says. “Whether it’s customer service or innovation or sales or marketing, they’re really trying to tie to their traditional business objectives and coming up with a strategy to engage with social media.”
While integration is important, he adds that a focused approach is critical. “The measure is not just ‘how many fans do I have on Facebook?’ or ‘how many followers on Twitter?’” There’s no intrinsic value in having lots of Facebook fans or Twitter followers. As Morace explains it, those numbers represent just another metric not as important to today’s social media–savvy people.
“[Fans and followers was] an easy thing to measure, and it correlated well, but we found over the years that just having a lot of people in the community didn’t necessarily achieve your business objectives,” Morace says. “Sometimes having a smaller amount of the people who mattered was much more important.... Initially it’s very easy to measure friends and followers, and now people are getting much more sophisticated about what they’re trying to achieve with all these people who are affiliated with their brand and want to hear their message.”
Morace points out that engaging with your large, or perhaps smaller, following in a way that moves your business forward should be the focus, as opposed to just the metric. In his experiences at inboxQ, Fahrner finds the most innovative companies have performed the best with relatively few Twitter followers by actively engaging with their fan bases.
“Our personal feelings [at inboxQ] internally and the way our tools are built are more about fostering interactions, with follower relationships being secondary,” Fahrner says. “A follower is great, but then what?”