Leveling the Playing Field with Social Media

The marketing intelligence gleaned from social media is well documented. From customer feedback online, businesses gain great insight into the relevance of their marketing messages, issues with customer experience, etc. But there is another aspect to this powerful force as well: Social media is leveling the playing field for businesses of all sizes.

If you're a small to midsize operation surrounded by big, well-known brands, chances are you feel that your efforts are dwarfed by their all-encompassing marketing initiatives. Compared to their clout, you probably feel that your reach is limited.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your organization), sources of information for customer decision making are shifting. What do customers typically do when they think about where to eat, shop, or stay? They go online to read reviews, which are now widely considered the top influencer of purchase decisions. Recommendations from personal acquaintances or opinions posted by consumers online are the most trusted forms of advertising, according to the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey of more than 25,000 Internet consumers from 50 countries.

Not too long ago, customer feedback was contained inside the business, used internally to pinpoint customer service pitfalls and improve operations. With social media, however, this feedback has shifted outside for any and all to see. Visitors to your business are increasingly tweeting, posting, and commenting on their experience—both the good and not-so-good—in a public forum.

The dramatic shift in feedback online and its vast exposure is leveling the playing field, despite disparities in marketing budgets. No matter the size of your business, your customers (and competitors!) know about your customer experiences. More than ever, people are dining at your restaurant, shopping at your store, or staying at your hotel because of the opinions your customers are sharing online.

Operations in the spotlight

This is not to dismiss the power of a brand or the impact of marketing, but instead, to serve as an alert to how social media has enabled smaller companies to better compete against the big ones. Given the dependency on the brand experiences of others in the customer decision-making process, our friends in the operations department are squarely in the spotlight.

The top priority for restaurants, for instance, has always been to provide great food and good service. That's even more critical in today's "everyone knows everything" online environment. From purchasing and menu development to preparation and service, a restaurant's operations team must be tightly focused on the guest experience, as many of those experiences are shared online. There's no place to hide mediocre food or sloppy service. Given the even playing field and wide availability of information, the best operators, small or large, will rise to the top.

Customer feedback goes everywhere and touches everyone. Its reach is amazing. Facebook now has more than 800 million users, and 250 million tweets are sent via Twitter each day. According to Mashable.com, Yelp had 22 million reviews on its network in September 2011—an increase of 66 percent over the comparable period in 2010. And Foursquare boasts 1.5 billion check-ins as of January 2012.

Mining and understanding this customer feedback has created a powerful lens on the customer experience. Businesses should be using this feedback as a barometer to understand what they are doing well and where they are falling down.

While many brands are listening to the online chatter, too few are deciphering what they have gathered in a meaningful way. A recent survey by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found that while more than half of the surveyed companies are using social media, less than one-quarter (23 percent) are using any form of social media analytical tools and only 5 percent are using some form of customer sentiment analysis—and sentiment is just the beginning.

Handling the feedback

Knowing what customers are saying online and putting all of the social media activity to work in a productive way is a business imperative. Interpreting feedback and synthesizing it into rich customer insight gives businesses of all sizes the intelligence needed to improve the brand experience, enhance customer satisfaction, and strengthen revenue.

How do you do that within companies? Unfortunately, social media is viewed as an incremental activity (i.e., cost) to businesses, requiring new team members, metrics, and strategies. Instead of approaching social media as an incremental task, companies should consider it as an input to existing processes. For example, consider funneling online staff feedback to a particular store's general manager for use in preshift. By filtering social media feedback into location-specific performance indicators, businesses realize unprecedented consumer insight that can influence their existing processes.

If you're not making the best use of social media feedback, consider the following, easy to implement opportunities:

Read the feedback. This may sound simple enough, but too often users of this information gravitate toward star ratings, follower counts, and other "measurables." The only way to pinpoint feedback to deliver to the appropriate team member is to read the rich insight.

Look for themes. Polarized feedback has a way of spreading quickly inside an organization. When you come across a mention, take it in context with a few other reviews.

Focus on executing well. Social media feedback is an online discussion about the customer experience. If the customer experience is positive, great feedback will follow!

Ashish Gambhir is cofounder of Washington, D.C.-based newBrandanalytics, a provider of social business intelligence solutions for the restaurant and hospitality industries. Their flagship offering, Social Guest SatisfactionTM, is used by thousands of restaurants and hotels. The company was recently named the Venture Summit Mid-Atlantic 100 Company of the Year.

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