Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Part 3: Social Media for Business – What on earth is it?

I have approached this series first looking at “Why bother with Social Media”, now we move to “What it is”. Social Media is not a single product nor is it a one size fits all process. Social Media is less of a thing and more of a “way” of engaging with your stakeholders.

To appreciate the full benefit of this medium you need to take a step back and review the way that you approach your business communication at every level. There are plenty of reasons why Social Media and Social Networking need to be considered with some urgency for your business but there is one that stands out and should be reason enough;
“The way your customers are talking and listening has changed so if you don’t want to loose them to a savvier competitor you’d better keep up.”
There has been a paradigm shift in the way we access information and make our purchasing decisions both domestically and commercially. This has been the result of our relatively recent access to the internet at high speed (broadband), access to reliable sources of up to the minute information (Social Media) and real time collaborative discussion with our peers (Social Networking).

No longer are we at the whim of the PR and advertising executives who traditionally influenced our spending by coming up with clever slogans, catchy jingles or by dominating the premium media spots on TV, magazines and newsprint. In today’s highly competitive consumer society, when we want to purchase, to engage professional services, to travel or to be entertained we will ask our friends online and consult with our virtual networks as to what they would recommend and suggest. The key point here is if you are not part of that conversation you cannot be an influence to its direction and relevance to your own business.

There are many definitions of Social Media; here are a couple that I think are adequate for this conversation:
Social Media: are collections of data and information that is developed collaboratively and/or shared interactively amongst individuals or groups. Examples include Blogs, Wikis, and shared Bookmarks.

Social Networking: is the use of process and technology to support the discovery, formation and maintenance of personal and professional relationships. Examples include Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter.
From a business perspective Social Media is a double edged sword. The majority of platforms are free and yet to get the best out of them there is a significant time investment required which comes at a cost to internal resourcing. There is a good argument for external outsourcing of this service but that will have to wait for a later post.

There are a few don’ts that have to be considered from the outset to avoid a very costly mistake made by many before you. Your brand and its values have been built up over many years so do not hand your most precious communications opportunity to the office junior just because he/she has a thousand Facebook friends and “knows all about it”. Your brand image must be maintained and communication made to a standard that reflects your goals, this can be undone and turned against you with poor judgement and business inexperience.

Don’t be too hasty to engage but engage you must. First watch and listen, in time you will be in a position to contribute and ultimately benefit. This needs to be approached as a long term strategy that takes planning and sound business advice that aligns directly with the existing goals of your organisation.

Here we expose the essential key to success, “strategy” and “planning” are fundamental to an effective social media campaign. The sad reality for many businesses is they have done little, and sometimes nothing in the way of formal planning making its application confusing, ineffective and potentially demoralising to all involved.

The best approach to any strategy session is to engage someone external who knows how to facilitate the entire procedure, to guide the conversation and bring out the most in every rank and personality that has anything to do with your operation.

Engagement and participation of the entire team is important, they all have something different to offer and if engaged in the process will take ownership and be a valuable contributor and active participant in the organisations future.

What does this have to do with Social Media you may ask, have we steered off subject? If you think we have then you are not in this for the long haul and will become quickly disillusioned with Social Media as a serious communications and promotional platform. Once you have a clear direction on what it is you want to achieve for your business only then can look to what products will suit your needs best.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Part 2: Social Media for Business – Why Bother?

You want to make more money don’t you? No matter what business you are in or what industry you represent the majority of us have one goal - to provide a product or service to a customer in exchange financial remuneration. It may be an over simplification but the fundamental exchange of goods for cash is what makes our collective survival and sustainability possible – both as a business and as individuals.

Business can be difficult even in the best of times, there are few of us, especially during a global financial recession, who can say that things are easy and life is a breeze right now. When times are good there is a tendency for corners to be cut, product quality and service levels to be not so closely monitored and staff or management not always being expected to perform to their greatest potential. Worst of all is customer service is way down on the list of priorities. Its times like now we start to comprehend the impact this is having on our business.

Taking any existing customer or potential client for granted is a big mistake.

Human nature and to some extent situational circumstances creates customer loyalty and with it desirable repeat business and referral. Look to your own purchasing habits to validate this. Where do you buy your bread and milk? Where do you fuel your car? Where do you get your hair cut? Now ask yourself, why?
Is it the quality of the service, the product, the price, or is it that you are made to feel valued when you give them your custom? What would it take for this purchasing habit to be changed? Would it be the result of their poor performance, bad service, a betrayal of the trust or would it be that someone else has made you feel more valued or offered you a better deal?

Customer loyalty is primarily about the relationship you have with the person who you exchange your hard earned cash with, you may even pay a premium price for your milk when you know the shopkeeper welcomes you by name, takes the time to listen or does something out of the blue that makes you or your family feel special or important. It may be as simple as stocking your favourite ice-cream, giving the kids a sweet free of charge once in a blue moon or remembering something you told him in passing like the date of your birthday.

I don’t have to convince you this is true, you know it is. So why do we fail to apply this simple logic to our own businesses and how we manage our own customer base.

The way we buy, the way we communicate has recently changed dramatically as a result of Social Media because we have a global communication network that never existed even a few years ago at our disposal. This change in the way we use the internet and the World-Wide-Web is why we now collectively refer to it as Web 2.0. Accessing this information and the live and interactive opinion of others is easilier, increasingly affordable, ubiquitous and portable. The size of this customer market - the digitally aware and proactive - is now too large to ignore and growing at an exponential rate. To put some perspective on this, if Facebook were a country it would be the 4th most populated in the world.

The question proposed here is, why should you bother with Social Media for your business?
Put simply, ignore it at your peril because leaving it to later may just be to late.
Your existing and potential customers are seeking the opinion and getting feedback from each other on many, if not most of their buying decisions right now. They are doing this via Facebook, in Twitter on YouTube and in their own blogs.

Paradoxically it’s the old fashioned values of maintaining conversations, keeping customers updated and informed, making them feel valued and allowing your advocates tell others about your great service is what makes the emerging social media communications strategies a success in both PR and financial return for businesses of all sizes.

The number one rule to remember is that social media are above all, a social tool. Our usual social norms apply just as well in the offline world, and this means treating customers with respect, being open and transparent, and being interesting and engaging.

Sure its going to take time, there are learning curves to be experienced and some tough decisions to be made - but the only thing you can’t afford to do is wait. Social Media is a long game, not a quick fix. If you are not participating, like the corner store who doesn’t understand the value of good service, your customers will simply drive on by and spend their money elsewhere.