Strategy and Social Media: Everything’s Social (Now)

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

It was a shot heard ’round the blogosphere.

Motrin — Johnson & Johnson’s well-known brand of over-the-counter pain reliever — had offended mothers with a marketing campaign centered around moms who “wear their babies” — a tongue-in-cheek campaign aimed at neck or back pain “inflicted” by baby-carrying devices. Immediately after the campaign launched, in mid-November 2008, the brand took a beating. Motrin was accused of spreading derogatory messages and — in a crime many marketers might deem far worse — of not understanding its target audience.

Moms (and their readers) twittered and blogged their frustrations. (“A baby will never be a fashion statement,” read one angry tweet.) Perhaps even more on the minds of moms was the lack of immediate response from Motrin. In the time the company took to respond, hundreds of moms had voiced opinions on the topic, thousands had commented, and millions had seen the newest campaign now framed in an unseemly light. Where was Motrin, consumers asked?

“Here was an immediate and instant negative impact on the Motrin brand,” says Suresh Vittal, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Motrin addressed it in a knee-jerk fashion.” An expert on the topic of brand monitoring — or “listening platforms,” as Forrester has recently renamed the space — Vittal says that if Johnson & Johnson really had been listening, the company could have been on top of the furor within the first hour. Instead, conversations continued on, chipping away at the brand. Eventually — in fact, just 24 hours later — Johnson & Johnson yanked all forms of the campaign and publicly apologized. Kathy Widmer, vice president of marketing with McNeil Consumer Healthcare (a Johnson & Johnson company) wrote: “We have heard your concerns about the ad that was featured on our Web site. We are parents ourselves and we take feedback from moms very seriously.” Vittal says listening is the fundamental step that brands need to take in facing the social Web — yet many big-name companies aren’t doing it.

Consumers are conversing about your companies whether or not you’re tuned in to the chatter. The social wave is upstaging traditional customer relationships as we’ve known them. From ratings to social bookmarking to blogs to collaborative computing, social technology has become a mainstay not only on the consumer side, but on the business side, as well.

Adam Sarner, a Gartner analyst, contends that, in getting social, “CRM is where you are going to see an ROI in the business mode as opposed to anywhere else.” He explains that it’s all about connecting and engaging in new ways with customers, but it comes down to mutual purpose. “There’s so much hype around social apps, but there’s only beginning to be conversation around a business model,” Sarner says. “While I understand that some of it is experimental, if you don’t have some sort of plan of what you want out of it — and what the community wants out of it — you aren’t going to get anywhere and it’s going to be the Minesweeper of the 1990s.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the emerging social technologies. The need and desire to be more social is apparent. “Everyone’s getting twittified,” Sarner points out. Vendors such as Radian6 and Nielsen Online’s BuzzMetrics have garnered attention for their abilities to listen to online social conversations. Community platform providers such as Lithium Technologies and Jive Software are helping companies connect with customers in forums. Microblogging services Twitter and Yammer have turned social networking into customer service channels. CRM vendors such as SAP and Salesforce.com are investing in and integrating with networking platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. The business world clearly wants to get social. The question remains, though, do companies know how? (For a quick alphabetical look at what businesses need to know, see this month's related story, "Social Media from A to Z.")

The concept of really talking to customers and penetrating a customer’s social graph transcends automation. There’s a new culture behind this social stuff. According to Soumitra Dutta, co-author of social networking tell-all Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom, it comes down to “losing control and loosening control.” (See this month's Required Reading for an interview with Dutta’s co-author, Matthew Fraser.)

Asking senior management to loosen its grip on customers is not the easiest thing. The concept of owning customers seems to be fading, though. As Andreas S. Weigend, the former chief scientist at online retailer Amazon.com, said at the recent Predictive Analytics World conference, companies barely own their products anymore, let alone their customers.

With the social Web, peer-to-peer conversations about products and services outweigh marketing efforts. In the past, it was easier for organizations to dictate their reputations and content on the Web. Until 10 years ago, Web-based content had limited value to customers — all they could do was look at it. Now, they’re able to access it, contribute to it, edit it, and share it — often with whomever they please. (See “Power to the People,” December 2007, for more on user-generated content.)

As Vittal says, this shift means that companies looking to succeed at social need to first start listening to what customers are saying about them on the Web. “Listening is the infrastructure that enables you to collect all this information and process it and analyze it,” he says. “Brands don’t have unlimited resources. They’re obviously not going to get involved in every conversation, but listening platforms help them decide which conversations are best to participate in and which are best to let alone.”

And it’s all so new! As consumers tweet, poke, rate, and vote their way to “social media expert” status, enterprises are still unsure where to jump in, let alone how deeply. “[Most companies] I speak with want to do social applications, and think it’s a good idea and see it in the news,” Sarner says. “When you drill down and ask them, ‘What do you want it to solve? What do you want it to do?,’ it’s very general — and that’s a problem.”

Many leading-edge enterprises already see the possibilities on the social horizon. Companies such as Comcast and JetBlue are innovatively using Twitter for customer service (see “The Feedback Funnel,” January 2009), and Zappos.com Chief Executive Officer Tony Hsieh is a prolific and transparent blogger. Vittal points out that even tech companies such as Microsoft and IBM are providing examples of how to engage with customers and leveraging the social Web, yet there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all social media strategy. (For more on Microsoft’s use of Twitter among its customers, see “Users Converge,” Insight, page 18.) These forerunners are blazing a trail that others are beginning to follow.

Justin Goldsborough, the social media manager for telecommunications provider Sprint, credits Comcast’s story for Sprint’s foray into Twitter. (He twitters there under the handle @JGoldsborough.) Upon diving in with social initiatives, he says he found surprisingly great support from senior management. “I’ve learned more by doing and trying things,” he says, “and that’s one of the reasons we’ve had success at Sprint.”

But not all companies are keen to scratch offline strategies in favor of online experimentation. “A lot of this is not rocket science,” Dutta says. “There’s evidence of what has to be done. Today, companies can get about 70 percent of the benefits just by looking at what other people do on channels. Some of the discovery has already happened and you can adapt it to your own organization.” The benefits are only possible once an organization is willing to admit that a little “fast following” is required.

Announcing social CRM applications at Oracle OpenWorld last fall, Anthony Lye, the senior vice president of Oracle CRM, bluntly told attendees that many of the functions were patterned after social technologies that had already earned consumer success, such as an image feature “borrowed” from picture-sharing site Flickr. “I’m a fast follower,” Lye said at the time, as a badge of honor.

Oracle’s not the only CRM vendor in the social space; Salesforce.com has also added deep integration with social media, first with Facebook and later Twitter. Sarner suggests that while there’s not yet an über-social-computing technology, it’s clear that CRM has embraced the possibilities, whether partnering with standalone social sales applications such as Insideview or with community forums such as Lithium or Jive. Even so, the technology is outpacing adoption.

Jeff Zabin, analyst with Aberdeen Group, says that companies must lay the groundwork with brand monitoring and social marketing before hoping to be the Starbucks of the Web. Some, he says, don’t even have those basic building blocks in place. It’s an evolution, and it’s hard to identify just how far companies have climbed on the social ladder. [Editors' Note: Zabin has contributed an online Viewpoint on this topic.]

Sarner and Dutta preach giving up at least some control to the community. “This doesn’t mean that you give them everything like they own it,” Sarner says. “If you aren’t prepared that they’ll take some of the control, then don’t have the community.” And if you can’t handle harsh responses, you shouldn’t ask questions in the first place. “Don’t ever, ever, ever ask if your product is good or bad if you aren’t prepared to hear the answer and take the consequences of hearing ‘It sucks.’”

As Johnson & Johnson learned, customers aren’t afraid to voice negative views. In fact, reviews that are overly effusive or — the kiss of death — 100 percent positive lead to consumer questioning. (Remember Belkin’s recent paid-review scandal?) Customers want authenticity, not payola.

If the consensus is to listen first, when do you get to act on what you’re hearing? “It’s inevitable, if you start listening generally — you will want to participate,” Dutta says. “It’s human nature.” It’s choosing when to participate that’s crucial. “An important aspect is recognizing that your customers have [lives] which might be more important than the relationship they have with you,” Dutta says, again challenging the old-school notion of “owning” customer relationships. “You have to be able to pick up the conversations that are going around the customer.”

Most social media participants recognize relevancy is key. No one wants to follow a company that twitters ads or posts links to canned marketing spiels. Social consumers don’t want to hear how wonderful your company or product is — they’d rather figure that out on their own, or find out from their social network. Friends often want to eat, wear, read, and watch what their friends are eating, wearing, reading, and watching.

Jeremiah Owyang, a Forrester Research social media analyst, says the social Web’s first phase covers monitoring; the next involves managing. As brands mature through those phases, they’ll figure out how to use the community to not only foster awareness and create evangelists, but focus the critical mass to improve business processes. (See his column, “The 5 Phases of Social Experience,” page 48.)

For now, some may simply take a social marketing nod from Mars candy brand Skittles, which experimentally surrendered all corporate control. (See “Skittles: A Rainbow of Social Media Marketing,” May 2009, for more on the campaign.)

That’s where social technologies shine brightest, says Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group and a CRM columnist — but the overall picture isn’t yet coming into focus. “You have pieces here and there,” he says. “Companies, when they do it, have operational CRM stuff and then they’ll try social things — but they aren’t necessarily integrated.” That’s a problem. The methodology and the interest in the technology are there, Greenberg says, but we’re seeing scattered social strategies, rather than a holistic social strategy.

Part of the madness? The sheer number of channels emerging. Companies would love to dive in, but can’t realistically manage them all. That’s why it’s crucial, Dutta says, to selectively choose channels that suit your business. The Obama presidential campaign, he says, successfully funneled its message through multiple (but not all) social media channels.

Sarner adds that the buzz surrounding Twitter today might soon be supplanted by something entirely new. Organizational strategies must be nimble enough to bounce from one hot social spot to the next, catering to fickle and trendy customers. It’s the strategy, not the technology or channel, that matters most.

Charlene Li, social media thought leader and founder of the Altimeter Group, told attendees at this year’s SXSW conference that future social networks will be like air: They’ll show not only the existence of a relationship, but how deep it is compared to others. Rich network information will be valuable to businesses and consumers alike. Today, she said, technology is siloed and we lack standards. When social paradigms are established, the value will be immense.

Customers, however, will only engage in trusted relationships, especially if they’re asked to exchange their data in return. “That’s a hard thing for many people to get around — not only as users, but as businesses,” Li said in her presentation.

If social media is so compelling and full of potential, why is it so hard for businesses to adopt? “[It’s] the change in the power structures that social networks can impose that cause many organizations to shirk away from any engagement at all,” Li said. Social strategy development, in other words, begins with change management.

The potential of applying social to CRM is massive, but we just aren’t there yet. In the future, customers may never shop alone. Owyang talks about the possibility of real-time product reviews. Rich implicit data will be pulled into e-commerce sites and be available on mobile phones. Organizations will be able to target one customer’s entire social group based on just her interests.

Harnessing the social graph is inevitable. Location-based social networking will start to take shape, Owyang says. “Now [a Web site] can recommend product specials for you as you get closer, enticing users with their favorite beverages. Mix in social, and it may suggest for you to invite your nearby friends, which would result in a discount for both of you, or another reward,” he explains.

There’s a lot to look forward to, but it might not happen for a few years. Meanwhile, more missteps are sure to follow, and we’ll have to revisit the implications of this social stuff all over again.

“We’re on the ground floor,” Vittal says. “Will some things have to change? Will a negative thing have to happen? Possibly. You never want a bad thing to happen to a brand. But, as with anything else, there’s nothing like bad news to spring you into action.”

“It’s a leap of faith,” Zabin says of social media exploration. “The risk of not becoming efficient or effective is going to ultimately hurt the value of the company.” 

Assistant Editor Lauren McKay can be reached at lmckay@destinationCRM.com.

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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