Whuffie Doesn’t Grow on Trees

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Tara Hunt’s got whuffie. When the author and social media consultant blogs, or updates, or twitters, people tend to listen—and react.

Take, for instance, an encounter Hunt had with UPS last year. Having rearranged her schedule to accommodate a package delivery, Hunt voiced her frustrations on Twitter when the UPS delivery was delayed. Within minutes she heard back from friend and fellow twitterer Tony Hsieh, the chief executive officer of Zappos.com. Hsieh happened to be having dinner with the president of UPS’s Pacific Region and assured Hunt that her problems would be taken care of. Turns out, that was an understatement: The next day, Hunt opened her door to find not only her package, but three UPS deliverymen, sporting flowers and chocolates, ready to assemble its contents for her.

A lucky coincidence? Maybe. But Hunt says these instances occur not because of money, not because of chance, but because of something much bigger—whuffie. Hunt’s new book The Whuffie Factor, which hit shelves in April, delves into the topic of social capital. (See this month's Required Reading for a Q&A with Hunt about the topic; also see Denis Pombriant’s Reality Check column, “The New Currency of Social Media,” in our June 2009 special issue on social media.)

Hunt insists that whuffie—a term for social capital she borrowed from a science-fiction novel by Cory Doctorow—is powerful stuff. It’s the core of how we relate to one another. It’s the basis on which we build relationships. It’s the foundation of all communities.

“It was because of my connections and reputation—and the fact that I have whuffie—that I was able to have [UPS] deliver the unit and come build it with me,” she contends. That whuffie, she says, is a reflection of her social nature and transparent communication skills. At press time, Hunt had more than 27,000 followers on Twitter (where she goes by @missrogue), but the Canadian native insists that numbers aren’t the issue. “It’s a very American thing to measure in quantity,” she says, insisting that softer metrics such as word-of-mouth are much more valuable to a company’s social capital or reputation.

So if whuffie is more than a popularity contest and isn’t a reflection of wealth, how does one land any of it—and how do corporations tap into it?

Well, whether you’re aware of it or not, your whuffie is accumulating (or receding) as we speak. “Every step of the way we’re adding and retooling our whuffie levels,” Hunt says. Social capital means trust, transparency, and the value gleaned from interactions. Just as wonderful customer experiences boost social capital, negative ones—you guessed it—detract from that capital, sometimes to a much greater degree. The goal, however, isn’t about trying to out-whuffie others—so how do you or your company get ahead?

Individuals and brands with high levels of whuffie are trusted by their peers and customers. They grant favors and get favors in return. Companies with low whuffie are likely not in tune with their customers, leading to interactions that may be inauthentic or flawed. The good news, Hunt says, is there’s always opportunity to rebuild one’s whuffie when it takes a hit.

In an April study conducted by HCD Research in conjunction with Media Curves, 65 percent of respondents were less likely to hit up Domino’s Pizza after viewing the infamous prank video posted on YouTube by two Domino’s employees. In the aftermath, Domino’s worked to rebuild its reputation—opening a Twitter account, posting its own YouTube video—but the company had little or no whuffie to build from or be sheltered by. By the time the response video posted, 48 hours had passed—an eternity in social media circles. Any lag opens the door for conversation to run rampant and rumors to circulate, essentially eroding whuffie. But the dearth of pre-crisis whuffie is what created a void.

Can Domino’s recover from this social media glitch? Of course. With the array of channels available for connecting with customers, Domino’s will have opportunities to win back some of those detractors. The effort may take some time, but what’s great about social capital is that it’s always possible to put pennies back into the whuffie bank.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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