Like many disruptive technologies, incorporating social media into a business model has proven challenging for both agencies and corporations. Social media seems to straddle at least two traditional functional groups within a business: marketing and customer service. And of course social media can be used in R&D, HR and operations as well depending on the business a company is in.
This post will deal with what I feel are the two most common implementations of social media technologies – as tools for marketing and as tool for customer service. In truth, these are the harder to work with, the others are internal only, which makes for a smoother integration process in some ways. With marketing and customer service though, the consumer plays a part, which is exactly the sticking point.
Let’s begin with marketing and communication. That social media has forever changed marketing few will argue against. In addition to providing more opportunities to engage, social media has allowed customers to do their own product research and review through peer opinions above and beyond what the marketer wants to communicate
A conflict of pace.
A business may choose to do its social media marketing internally or to include it in an agency relationship. Either way, the pace (and expectations) of social media are far more immediate than the traditional marketing process which includes development of concepts, revisions and review, legal approval and then publication. This creates inevitable conflict. Social media requires near-continual attention and sometimes instantaneous response (as with the case of customer inquiries on Facebook or Twitter). Community managers are not afforded the luxury of time by their customers, even as the company’s lawyers insist that all posts and replies be vetted through them. Without a high degree of trust and training in the community managers, a company will always be behind expectations in social media dialogues.
The devil is in the dialog.
Of course the lawyers have a whole additional set of worries with social media – what the company’s customers will say. These comments are often published on the company’s Facebook wall or directed to its Twitter account where they are searchable by hashtags. While the lawyer’s desire to review outbound postings does not jive with the pace of social media, the concern is understandable given how quickly a situation can escalate online. Though every company by now is used to hearing a certain degree of mild discontent from some consumers, the stakes can get quite high and be very, very public. Compliance issues around healthcare, finance or insurance make the free-wheeling world of social media even harder to work within. Again, community managers who are not well trained and therefore trusted represent a certain liability from the legal perspective.
Isn’t digital supposed to be cheap?
Lastly, there is the matter of ROI. With each new technology a business’ budgetary pie is cut into thinner and thinner slices. Money must continually be reallocated so that the company can be in all the important places it needs to be. As consumers come to expect customer service through social media, companies must invest in community managers online but cannot necessarily cut back on their call centers. Similarly, in addition to the budget for traditional media, and tradition digital media (banners and SEM) now budget must be made available to manage a Facebook presence (in addition to a company’s website), possibly a Twitter account (or several) and perhaps tinkering with other platforms like FourSquare, Tumblr, YouTube and the latest shiny object, Pinterest.
Yet for all the budgetary demands, the return on investment in social media remains stubbornly hard to quantify (at least in the way shareholders like to see it). There is the table stakes nature of it – meaning companies that aren’t on Facebook can look old fashioned to modern consumers. But the value of fans, cost of engaging them and ultimate tieback to sales are anecdotal most of the time. The customer service front may be more measurable in terms of the cost of running a Twitter service account vs. the number and length of calls at a call center, but continually monitoring these costs to determine if the Twitter account saves in costs at the call center itself costs money in the form of the salary for the analyst.
What’s ‘Trust’ worth?
Since its inception, digital has had the reputation of being cheap. Compared to other media it has always been cheaper from a marketing perspective. Costs have risen, naturally, but they’ve not come close to the costs of a TV campaign. Then again, they also don’t tend to have the reach of a TV campaign. Digital is a one to one medium in many ways which means its better at informing than building awareness because online everyone is spread out over a near infinite number of websites and apps.
Digital has also been portrayed as a young person’s game. Most social media community managers are late 20-somethings or early 30-somethings. As such their salaries have been cheaper comparatively. Which has been good for corporations because that ROI issue noted above has been harder to prove and most companies, absent hard ROI, will try to keep costs down on the ‘experimental stuff’ into which social media is often categorized.
The trouble is, a 28 year old making a low to mid five figures with about 5 years business experience under his belt is really probably not experienced enough to make the right calls to earn the trust of the lawyers and stakeholders in a corporation. This is not a failing of the community manager, just a reflection of their modest experience. Anyone who’s put 15 years into their career realizes in hindsight how much they didn’t know those first few years in business. Yet, these inexperienced employees are often put on the ‘front line’ of a businesses contact with customers. They are the people handling the customer service, responding to incendiary posts by frustrated customers and trying to make sense of the volumes or data and ever-changing “best practices” (a generous terms in a 5-year-old industry) in the area of social media. It is no wonder then that senior leadership and the legal department want to have everything reviewed before it goes out the door.
Of course the price paid for this review process can be heavy if impatient customers are expecting a reply to their queries.
Trust is the ultimate quality senior leadership must have in its community managers. Yet the legacy of the digital space, and the groundless assumption that only young people – native to social media – can work in that space, mean most community managers, while likely very good, smart people, probably can’t entirely be trusted to respond properly because they simply do not have the experience to make the right judgements at crunch time.
Good, fast, cheap – pick two.
So this is where we find ourselves. Companies have new technologies they must adopt lest they look behind the times. They have legacy processes to review communication that are not compatible with the user expectations set by social media. They hire junior people because they ‘grew up with this stuff’ to serve on the frontline of social media with customers and prospects of the company. Yet senior leadership and the legal department, with some justification, do not trust these young people to necessarily represent the company properly without stringent oversight.
For customer service this can sometimes be handled the way call centers are, where responses are pre-approved and scripted and a troublesome situation can be ‘kicked up’ to a manager with more experience. This layering process, however, comes with a cost in employees which may undermine any savings gained by moving some customer service from the phone to Twitter.
The marketing side is all the more challenging. Using an agency rightly brings up legal concerns. Even the most experienced agencies cannot expect to be as aware of the regulations in complex industries like healthcare and finance. And clients in general have a hard time letting go of the review process and trusting the agency’s community manager to run their business. After all, this person is not a member of the company and most businesses, at the end of the day, realize that if something goes very wrong, the agency will not be as liable as the company itself.
For companies doing it inside, the trick is hiring the right person and building an internal process which meets the speed requirements of social media. This is usually no easier than when working with an agency, especially since the cost-conscious company that chooses to keep such things ‘in house’ is most likely to hire the 28-year-old thereby requiring the supervisory layers that slow things down.
As always, you get what you pay for.
There’s no easy answer. It you lock social media down to scripted responses so that legal doesn’t need to review every missive, the communication become stiff, unnatural and unsatisfying from the consumer perspective. If you let go and trust your agency or community manager without legal review, you run a big risk of missteps because those community managers are young and inexperienced.
The nearest solve I can see is to hire more senior for that community manager role. A veteran of communication on the customer service side or marketing side, with good industry knowledge is more likely to make good, smart decisions in a pinch. S/he is also more likely to ‘get’ customer service and understand the stakes of what s/he is doing on the frontline. While this won’t alleviate entirely the need for legal oversight, it will keep things moving along.
However, that means taking the jump and deciding to pay more to invest in a community manager. For companies who believe they need a ‘social media native’ that may mean waiting another five to ten years to find someone with “10 years of solid community management experience.” Personally, I think that’s the wrong direction. Rather, it seems more sensible to find a progressive, technologically-oriented executive with good people skills and solid business savvy. The mechanics of Facebook, Twitter and the rest can be taught relatively easily. Experience can’t be. Yet it is experience that allows senior management (and even the lawyers, sometimes) to trust the community manager. This in turn does the best job of addressing the conflicting needs of social media to be immediate but also to mitigate the risks associated with dealing with customers in real time.