• June 24, 2011
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

Never Underestimate the Power of Traditional Methods

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I probably spend more than two workweeks a month on the social Web doing things to encourage digital interaction. I tweet, retweet, get retweeted, create hashtags, generate comments on blog posts, find myself the subject of posts, and am told that I influence corporate decision-making based on what I say online.

I listen to arguments about who is an influencer or what makes him influential. I will have arguments about the value of Klout: Does it measure influence or engagement? What’s the difference anyway?

I get regaled (and do some regaling) about the speed with which social media customer service teams respond on Twitter and Facebook—and the lack of speed on more traditional customer service channels.

However, the power of traditional channels is as strong as that of social channels. Traditional channels are much harder to measure, don’t scale the same way, and thus are a lot less sexy. As a result, they aren’t given the importance they deserve.

Want at least a self-satisfying personal proof? Answer three questions:

1.    If given the choice of being quoted in TechCrunch or The New York Times, which would you choose?
2.    If given the choice of a half-hour video podcast that would be broadcast on a YouTube channel or a half-hour TV show on NBC, which would you choose?
3.    If given the choice of self-publishing a book on the Web or having one done in print by a major publisher, like McGraw-Hill, which would you choose?

The reality is that traditional channels are not being replaced by social channels, despite all the buzz about the declining revenue of print media, including books and newspapers. A smart marketer works with both offline and online media because the former still carries as much or more weight than Twitter or Facebook does.

One reason that social media generates the buzz that it does is that it seems as if all manner of purchasing influence rests there. But it’s also because there are some spectacular examples of its use and it is easier to measure impact on the Web, where bytes can be captured and analyzed. For example, there is no Klout for the printed media. Are book sales the way to measure the author’s impact on purchasing decisions? Are advertising dollars at The Wall Street Journal the way to measure Walt Mossberg’s influence on decision-making in technology purchases? There is no easy way, yet everyone knows that Mossberg and David Pogue of The New York Times are highly influential.

The evidence is more than anecdotal. For example, just three years ago, DMG Consulting, run by contact center management guru Donna Fluss, developed a statistic that belies what people believe. Seventy-seven percent of all Gen Yers—the generation that lives on and for the social Web—prefer a phone contact when trying to resolve a problem.

Moreover, traditional channels still represent the bulk of consumer interactions with customer service. Communications software provider Nuance released a study in April that said, “When asked about their preferred methods for receiving customer service support, there was a fairly even split among: speaking with a live agent via mobile phone and/or landline phone, speaking over chat or IM, using a Web site, and sending an email.” Note that Twitter and Facebook weren’t in the mix. Given that this was a Twitter usage survey, the result is even more eyebrow raising.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you go old school again. Rather, remember how important it is to treat social channels as nothing more or less than a new set of communications options for interacting with social customers.

However, the majority of the world is not social customers. And even the social customers don’t care about your brand as much as they care about communicating with their friends. Another April study, titled “From Social Media to Social CRM,” by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, revealed that 70 percent of all the participants in social channels do it strictly for personal reasons, and only 23 percent interact with a company’s brand.

Thus, social channels do not replace traditional ones, which remain more influential. According to the 2011 Deloitte survey “State of the Media Democracy” (5th edition), “71 percent of Americans still rate watching TV on any device among their favorite media activities. In addition, 86 percent of Americans stated that TV advertising still has the most impact on their buying decisions.” That makes TV easily the most influential of all media. So, don’t give up your offline commitment to marketing or your contact center for customer service.

This isn’t to underestimate the power and growth of social channels, especially mobile ones. These are a result of a major and irreversible communications revolution. But there is something more important to remember. When it comes to traditional and social channels, the solution is never the channel itself but how you use it. And how you use any channel is governed by the service culture of the company for which you work.

Take Comcast, the brainchild of thought leader Frank Eliason in 2008. It did an excellent job with the first-ever customer service channel run through Twitter. He realized that because many people had complained about Comcast being broadcast via Twitter, he needed to interact in the medium. Eliason also understood that Twitter was a channel rather than an awe-inspiring phenomenon that deserved bowing and scraping. So he put together a team of folks who could respond within 24 hours—hopefully in under an hour—and became a legend because his idea worked.

Senior staff at Comcast liked this too, but not for the reasons you would think. They saw it as great PR for Comcast, so they kept funding it. It had a decent success rate of fast first contact resolution and made the staff look good.

The problem is that it was not seen as a paradigm for transformation at Comcast. Consequently, the approach was not replicated in any way throughout the company. Customer service in the other channels continued to be so horrible that Comcast ranked 143 of 144 in customer experience superstar Bruce Temkin’s 2011 Service Experience Index ratings.

If there are lessons to be drawn from this example, they are these:

1.    Never underestimate the power of offline, traditional channels. They still represent a substantial way to influence buying decisions and solve problems.
2.    The channel isn’t the thing. What you do in it, how you interact, and what problems you solve in a reasonable time frame far outweigh the channel itself.
3.    The use of social channels is only valuable in the context of a broader strategy. Sometimes you don’t need social channels; other times, they are vital.

Don’t fall for the hype. Traditional and social channels for marketing and customer service in particular are just elements in how you can engage customers in pursuit of your strategy. The measured use of the combination can be powerful.

OK, I’m tired. I’m going to send out a few emails, tweet out some stuff, make a couple of calls, and read some walls in Facebook. Then I’m off to a neighborhood bash. Talk to you soon, one way or the other.

Paul Greenberg (@pgreenbe on Twitter) is president of consultancy The 56 Group (the56group.typepad.com); cofounder of training company BPT Partners; a CRM magazine columnist; and chair of the magazine’s CRM Evolution conference (Aug. 8–10, 2011, in New York; www.destinationCRM.com/conference). The fourth edition of his book, CRM at the Speed of Light (McGraw-Hill), is available in bookstores and online.

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