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Social Media and the Customer Community
Well it's been a while, and so it goes that tactical work tends to sometimes drown out the participation in social media through social technology. Such is life in 2010. Speaking of social media, with this post I am going to focus on just this topic.

CRM vendors and analysts are having a frenzy with the topic of social media. And rightly so. The statistics are staggering how much information categorized as "social" is floating on the internet today. It's not only becoming a part of our every-day activities and lives, but it also has a direct influence on the popularity of products and services … and, therefore, companies. Where our industry gets confused is that they call everything they are focused on "social."  What is social and how should we think about it?  Here's my opinion:

Peter Drucker (http://bit.ly/9Tipk1), popular writer, management consultant and self-described "social ecologist" was quoted as saying, "In a few hundred years, when the history of our time is written from a long-term perspective, it is likely the most important event historians will see is not technology, but the unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time, people have choices."
In today’s social world, it matters less and less how effective your marketing campaigns are (with perhaps the exception of awareness and recognition campaigns), or how effective your sales people are. Right now, your customers are talking about your company, products and services, and they’re doing it without regard to your reputation, your market share, or your previous values. They don't care about your corporate mission statement or who your founders were (or are). They, for the first time, have the power to influence each other and are doing this to a great extent. Earlier this month I was shopping for a new television because my 8-year-old plasma screen bit the dust. I shopped here and there, but ultimately chose based on consumer experience shared on a retail store's web site. It wasn't price. It wasn't features. It was simply based on the reputation of the product purchased by other consumers. I can tell you that eight years ago, I was focused solely on getting the most features for the lowest price. A complete change in prioritization is under way, and not with just me. I hear this from my friends and, more shockingly, from my 93-year-old grandfather, who recently purchased new phones for his house in a very similar manner.

OK, so I have just described the use of social technology for marketing and sales purposes. A very important category, but also a bit different from leveraging social media. Social media like Twitter or Facebook have a slightly different purpose. These tools, and others, are really for companies (although originally intended for individuals) to gain what is called a “Groundswell” for their products or services. Groundswell is a term that was originally coined by Forrester in a book of the same name (http://amzn.to/aelO7d).The basic premise is that organizations should absolutely be participating in social media (in the right way) and leveraging this for their advantage. There are many ways to do this well and not well. I would suggest that each company begin its quest of leveraging social media by taking on a few college interns for their advice before they get too deep into the initiative.

The other area that I wanted to discuss was the concept of social- or community-based support. This is another topic that, more than any other, seems to have the most confusion in the marketplace. Social support is not about participating in LinkedIn, nor is it about tweeting about a product recall (although this is related). Social support is about empowering your customers to support each other and express their opinions on the value of your products and services. Guess what? This has actually been in existence for more than three decades, at least the initial incarnations found mostly in high tech sectors of commercial industry. The main components of community-based support are as follows:
  • Forums - Electronic bulletin boards where customers can ask questions and get responses from peers. Good forums typically are tied into the contact center or "assisted support operation" so that no customer is left unattended. The key here is that customers actually don't want to call your customer support operation. They would rather ask a fellow customer for help, and this is where they will start - if it is done right.
  • Ideation - The idea here is that customers can post up suggestions about your existing or perhaps future products and services. Other customers vote on these ideas for your company to implement. Better than customer samples, focus groups or surveys, this really will turn your operations into a responsive and lean customer satisfier - if it is done right.
  • Blogs - Guess what?  Active customers want to talk about your products and services to other customers. And they will typically glow about what works and politely criticize what is wrong. You gain loyalty and interest and you don't have to do anything but give them a platform to speak. Again, you need to be cautious how you approach, but this is a fabulous way to get the community going.
  • Media Galleries – OK, so perhaps just an adjunct to forums but if you have a product or service more complex than a pencil, users will want to not only view how-to videos, but they also want to post their own. Give them a place to do just that.
  • Groups and Clubs - Customers will want to congregate around each other. Let them do just that by forming groups and/or clubs. Nothing like sorting through every product you produce to participate in a community. It's annoying and a quick detractor from the purpose of community.
  • User Reputation and Activity Systems - You must, must, must build in some way for customers to rate not only your products and services but each other. This helps clarify the advice being given and will build up your community by placing incentives for participation. You don't have to pay anybody here, just recognize them, and allow them to rate each other.
  • Analytics - What's it all worth?  Without solid analytics, it will seem as if this is just another cost without much benefit. Measure it. There is absolutely benefit, and you can improve the community, but you must first know how to improve it. Good analytics will tell you.

Hear more from Consona on social support tools by reading this whitepaper: http://crm.consona.com/CRM/LearnMore/social-support

Wanna see a good support community?  Check out Dell (http://dell.to/9l9YTj)

How about a bad support community?  Check out Apple (http://bit.ly/PeUz)

So, let's separate social media participation, like having a Facebook page, from social technology, like product ratings and social- or community-based support. They are all different things, not completely disconnected, but definitely distinct.
Agree / disagree?  Let me know, I would love to hear.