The arrival of social media clearly heralds a change which companies cannot ignore. Key audiences are no longer passive recipients of company messages. They are participating. They are having conversations about brands and company news. They are making their own comments and sharing them with their peers in real-time.
Broadcasting messages to these audiences in a traditional mass media style is not going to work. No one likes megaphone style messaging especially when they are with their friends and colleagues. Besides it is anti social behaviour. It makes no attempt to listen and be relevant. Nor does it try to add something useful or interesting to add value.
In order to retain customer loyalty, companies are going to have to reinvent the way they communicate through social media. It’s going to be far more one-to-one and personal. Traditionally companies would reserve all their personal attention for a reporter from the FT or the Wall Street Journal or the Today Programme. Now companies are beginning to realise that individuals through social media deserve respect and attention if they are to remain or be converted into brand custodians. Especially as they have extensive social networks of their own.
These individuals will not be satisfied with traditional company messaging or brochures. They require something more authentic, honest and useful to them. Otherwise they will ignore you because you don’t sound like one of them.
This poses a number of challenges. If you respond to what is being said about you through social media, what are the risks of legitimising a small group of customers who are spreading false stories about you? If you post a comment in response to a piece on a blog, are you prepared to enter into a conversation? Is there a risk that you will come over big brother-ish and scare the living daylights out of an individual who never expected to meet a representative of a big company personally on Twitter?
Using social media is quite different to traditional methods of communication. As a former journalist, I can remember how reassuring it was to have an editor at the Guardian to check my work before it was published and to know that they would vet any reader letters before deciding whether or not to publish them. Now when I post for my Media Week blog, Bloggerati, publication is instantaneous and readers comments can appear in minutes. I can remember my initial stage nerves. However you soon get used to it. People are different when they realise they are accountable for their opinions. If you are polite and respectful online, it can go a long way.
For some companies there are certain audiences who will never agree with your views. However I believe you can draw some of the poison out by entering into reasonable discussions and explaining your position as best you can. So long as you talk like a human being and not in the language of corporate spin.
Companies who participate more, who observe the social etiquette of particular communities, and talk one to one with more audience members will do better. Rather than allowing festering comments and misconceptions to linger, the company which tackles them head on in a fresh and honest way will gain respect and build up their social capital online.
Seeing the amount of social media comments and posts about your business for the first time is daunting. Large organisations are seen as easy targets. But when individuals see and meet people within these organisations, some of their stereotypical views will melt. Imagine a group of people talking disparagingly about someone in the corner of a room. Then they meet the person and discover that person is quite different to what they have been told. It will be hard for them to cling to their same views from then on. It might be uncomfortable to begin with but if that person persists in being open and friendly and respectful, they are bound to begin to wield more cultural influence in a positive way than they did before.
Many companies who are fearful of participating with social media, soon discover it is much easier than they think when they develop their own platforms so they can communicate directly with key members of their audiences. If you find you have people talking about you on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and You Tube (which you probably have) and you are not there, effectively you are silent. But create a platform for yourself through Twitter, and blogs, and through participation you will begin to gain social experience and providing you use these channels effectively, you will begin to exert cultural influence through the audiences and their networks that you engage with.
Entering into conversations will require companies to reinvent the ways they communicate. It will require them to reinvent working patterns. But no company can ignore social media and those that reinvent themselves more quickly will do better faster and I think the world of corporate communications will be better for it. There is an opportunity here to empower experts within your organisation to impress and motivate customers. Conversations are the new marketing.
Those hesitating to engage with social media. Those that talk up the risks too much should consider the fate of some newspapers who have for ages treated the internet as a threat and have criticised Google without identifying the opportunities for themselves to create new types of journalism. There are new types of corporate communications to be created and now is the time to begin creating them. Being ostrich-like will only leave the way open for cannier competitors.