In most brand organizations, marketing investments rest on 20th Century marketing principles whose results are diminishing every year. At the same time, an increasing portion of products and services is “commoditizing,” which puts more pressure on marketing to “create” differentiation and value. In many cases, there is no escape—except by changing the rules. Here I’ll show how marketing can reinvent itself by using social business to tap a hidden gold mine.
The Threat: Dire Straits in Marketing
Marketing as a profession emerged in leading economies during the mid 20th century, when manufactured products were novelties in many categories. Marketers came to assume that they could “create an image” or “brand” using the mass communications to which few had access. Individual customers had no leverage because word of mouth was analog. Word of mouth has always been the most trusted source of product or service information, but it had no leverage until social peer-to-peer technologies emerged. Marketing’s credibility will never recover because customers now have a more trusted alternative — other customers. You can make this work for you.
The Opportunity: Customer Service as Marketing
For customers, the most compelling information about companies, products, or services is often conversations about how products or services can be used in specific situations. They have high credibility because they are initiated by customers and show what happens when exceptions arise. Simplistically speaking, marketing’s job is to increase demand for the company’s products and services. Customer service conversations will be more compelling than marketing messages in many situations, but they have to be treated completely differently.
- When you realize that superior customer service in digital social venues can be reused by thousands of customers and prospects, suddenly you can invest in it because it can drive more sales. And customers can use it for free to help themselves. Therefore, it is like marketing, except it is much more effective because it has high credibility since your company doesn’t control the conversation.
- Customer service is an opportunity to show how products or services create value, or how people can avoid or deal with exceptions. These exceptions are often fears that prevent other prospects from buying.
- Address the emotional channel of value. People are most attracted to other people who are sincerely interested in them. People who care. Really. This can’t be faked. But when your employees do really care and can show it, people can feel it and will want to do business with you. When this happens in a transparent many-to-many venue, it creates demand.
- One company that does this consistently is Apple in its Genius Bars. Over the years, I have had dozens of interactions with various stores, in person and over the phone. In virtually every case, people show genuine interest in what I present to them. I also observe employees and how they interact with a variety of other people. It goes beyond being “professional;” people really seem to care. It can be done. But Apple is practicing it at one-to-one retail at a very high cost.
- Pattern matching software can automatically select, analyze, and publish very specific public conversations elsewhere (mash-ups). Therefore, your company can display these conversations alongside products, so customers can find them easily.
How to Leverage Social Business for Marketing
- One of the most difficult things to overcome is the realization that marketers will never have the credibility and influence they had before digital word of mouth. However, this is critical because, until you realize and accept it, you will lack the sense of mission needed to transform marketing ahead of competitors. It requires profound culture change. Companies that do it will win because they will be aligned with customers. Those that don’t will increasingly have adversarial relationships with customers.
- Analyze social business conversations for your products or services. Look for certain products or services that show relatively high levels of customer involvement and group problem solving within defined scenarios (i.e. big screen TVs for having people over, or seat belts when you have a pack of preschoolers in the minivan). Also analyze customer service capabilities and results and cultures around various products. You want to select situations for pilots in which customers are collaborating and customer service is relatively empowered to address problems. If the latter is in bad shape, don’t use your customer service people for the first pilots.
- In the pilots, have people serve customers in third party sites, which will save money and increase credibility. Choose forums and sites that are public, so you can republish information later via mash-ups.
- Select a small group of Contributors for pilots who love the products but who are really interested in customers and how they use products. Scale the program by rotating people in and out.
- Have a username convention for Contributors that’s natural yet uncontrived. This will help you track mentions in Google.
- Create quantitative metrics to show results. Create a taxonomy to categorize customer service issues along with metrics. Some examples of metrics: expressions of gratitude, customer problems solved, uninvited mentions or referrals, Google rankings, social media monitoring rankings of conversations. Contributors’ rankings within forums or venues (i.e. “thumbs ups”).
- Create the mash-ups and republish relevant conversations between your people and customers on your web pages. Be careful when you do this, so it doesn’t come across as fake; you want a good portion of conversations in which your people admit they are wrong or made a mistake. Marketing is already known for “happy talk,” which is why it has little cred. Also create a microsite that explains the pilot.
- Create an unobtrusive tracking device (i.e. code) for people to use if they learned about you through the venues, so you can track incremental sales. But don’t do this using regular copywriters; otherwise it will sound like common coupons or promotions and discredit the effort.
- Experiment with various product/customer/service scenarios until you get some wins. The better your due diligence in the beginning, the more likely you’ll get on base. But many companies and careers depend on getting this right.