It Is Time for Brands to Bring Their Social Media Home

FrankEliason
Frank Eliason Director of Global Social Media, Citibank

Posted on May 23rd 2014

It Is Time for Brands to Bring Their Social Media Home

social media of the futureThis week we had the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of Scott Monty as he left Ford to begin a new chapter in his storybook career. Scott has always been a hero of mine, not because of what Ford accomplished online, but more because of how he has guided people inside and outside Ford to the new world of social media. I have said often that social media is more a mindset than anything else, and Scott has been a perfect example of that, and will continue to be in the future. He is a leader. 

As we were celebrating Scott, we had the opportunity to also look back at social media over the past seven years, as well as where social media is heading. Back in 2007 and 2008, social media was all about people. Even the branded accounts we knew were often also about the people behind the brand. We trusted them. Our view of social media was that it would change business forever, placing greater importance on the Customer and their experience: it was rooted in the “people to people” connections of brands and Customers. Social media was not about brands talking, it was about people talking about what was important to them, and the related conversations they could have with real people from a brand. Hopefully that meant talking positively about your brand.

During that time many people, such as Scott, myself, and others, built up personal brands. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I personally never wanted a personal brand. I just simply did what I was passionate about. That was always the theme I found with people who built a personal brand; they were highly passionate about something and they lived it every day. I loved the good ol' days because we were such a tight-knit community. Luckily, many of us built long-standing relationships that I expect will continue for a long time to come.

Starting in late 2009, early 2010 we saw the birth of social media ninjas, gurus, or whatever else they called themselves. The message to brands became "You must be on social media. Social media will forever change your way of marketing and the best part is that it is free." This message grew louder and louder and companies started to believe that simply by tweeting or posting on Facebook they were going to grow by leaps and bounds. With this we saw a cottage industry begin to grow with social media marketing firms, community management, and the beginning stages of content development firms. With each new firm, the ways someone could sell your brand grew tremendously. Companies slowly bought in.

Next came the tools, with tons of promises of new Customers, new insights, and most of all, the amazing growth of fans. It did not matter if the fan was a person, Customer, or just a robot. As long as they could show fan growth, they were a winner. As time moved on, companies started to realize unengaged fans were not adding value, so they started to look at themes such as engagement. Companies also began taking their social media activities to broader places beyond the initial big three of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Expectations were increased at every point in this process. Throughout all these years thousands and thousands of case studies were presented, showing the huge value social media was bringing. Each of these cases studies focused on usually small things but the data was twisted to provide this amazing case for putting more money to social whether it was for agency spend or these new fancy tools that would deliver everything, including sliced bread. 

Around this same time we saw the birth of “social business,” which spoke to the need for greater collaboration inside (and across) the workforce, as well as directly connected business functions with Customers. This of course was an easy concept to sell to executives. Unfortunately, it really became a means to sell collaborative software, not truly social business. The Customer connectivity, relationship and day-to-day insight and digital/social Customer experience of a business was lost to software supported internal collaboration. In fact most executives did not understand social business, but they bought into collaboration. The problem is software does not solve the culture issues, which are the root cause. This has led many to believe social business does not work. The end story to this little component is not bad, but we will get back to that later. 

Back to the public side of social media and the continuing evolution. As companies participated more and more in social media, content became key. We started to see the rejuvenation of terms such as content marketing. The challenge with content marketing was just that. Mass marketing of company content generated volumes of company messages that became an avalanche of mass marketing content flooding social media.  Consumers started to ignore a lot of the messages, but also it was harder and harder for brands to break through the noise to be heard.

Then we had the big moment when Oreo had a slam dunk during the Super Bowl. This was the birth of real-time marketing. Although the term and concepts were outlined before that, the Oreo moment was the key to show potential success. The problem with real-time marketing was always the fact that brands sought to be the center of attention instead of being one with the community. In my view this Oreo example, as well as the recent Arby's example, were not trying to be center of attention but to be part of an overall conversation. The problem with virtually every other attempt? They were all trying to spam conversations, which to me is never a good approach.

We have continued to see content marketing grow. I fear it is growing so much that it appears more like a bubble that is ready to burst. Brands started pushing content everywhere and anywhere. The content itself often is more push messaging with very little, if any, benefit to me as a Customer. You can view any brand Facebook page or the infamous native advertising being done throughout the Internet. I personally feel most brands are getting this all wrong, and they will struggle to see a return on investment, no matter what their agency or marketing professionals are telling them. Today we are seeing multiple news sources trying to capitalize on potential advertising revenue; with brands as publishers, they now offer new and improved ways to generate content for what is really nothing more than good old fashioned ads. I am personally not against native advertising, or advertising of any kind for that matter. I think the challenge is making sure it is done in a way that is not to trick the reader.

Anytime you are trying to trick the reader, or calling your potential Customer a fool, you are not starting from a good position. The other problem is often times the content does not focus on the Customer needs and instead focuses on how great the product of a company is. To be honest, I do not care about your product or company. I care about myself and my family’s needs. This feeling flows through all aspects of marketing, including social media, digital, native advertising, or TV. You can make me laugh, or cry, but at the end of the day I focus on what I deem to be more important aspects of my life.

As Forrester has pointed out, CMOs are starting to get frustrated with Facebook and Twitter. I expect this frustration will only grow deeper and deeper through the course of this year. At first the CMO was frustrated by the algorithm shift. They bought fans in the past, and now they cannot reach them! But as the CMOs dig further, they will realize the algorithm changes were caused more by bad content than anything else. Today there are Facebook pages that do see strong organic spread, but they typically did not buy fans; instead, they earned them and their fans are highly engaged.

We fail to recognize that most people today take advantage of mobile and the mobile newsfeed. They do not drift to fan pages at all, and if it is in their newsfeed they blow right past it. The only people I tend to see engage with brands tend to be other marketers or employees of the brand. All these efforts on Facebook are starting to get costly when you consider the hours to create content, costs of approving the content, and the community management. Now you add to that the ad spend all for bad content! This is not working out so well, and it is no wonder people are questioning it.

Many will agree with these frustration points and will think Twitter offers so much more. But the reality is very different. There are exceptions to everything, but as I have watched engagement across Twitter, especially for brands it seems to be going down. I think these CMOs are seeing the same. During one of the recent music awards events, typically a time for real-time marketing, it seemed that it was more about brands simply talking to each other, instead of the audience. As you look through brand activities you see fewer and fewer retweets or engagement of any kind. Often people who love Twitter will point to followers. If you want to have fun start running brand accounts through Status People’s fake follower tool. You will see surprising results. In the Forrester report, these same CMOs are interested in doing more on other platforms, but I wonder how long before they are frustrated with those as well.

That was a bit of history. I am sure there were some things you agreed with and others you did not. I now want to clue you in on a little secret. Social media was and will always be about people.

I don't mean people like Scott or myself, but everyday people. They are your employees, family, friends and even your enemies. Social media is about people talking with people. Guess what? Your brand is not a person and never will be. It is very difficult for any brand to build the level of trust that we have for those around us. The key to understanding social media is understanding the people in it. This is not about having the single spokesperson, like Scott or myself. It is about building a social media mindset throughout your organization. A culture shift in control and power, but one that has already happened whether your executives realize it or not. This is nothing new.

If your brand wants to succeed in social media, the keys to success have always been the same:

  • Create remarkable experiences for your Customer. We have to make sure products and services are designed to give the Customer a reason to talk positively about your brand. The good news in this arena is that many companies are starting to work on improving the Customer experience. I expect the challenge will be having a deep cross-functional understanding that your Customer already has. Much of the improvement to date is due to many of you working in social media.
  • Employee empowerment. Your employees are the greatest assets for most companies, but we often fail to empower them to talk in social media. This is a big mistake; you're overlooking one of the greatest ways you could build trust in the brand. Instead of having policies that say no, teach them, help them.

Marketing may have brought the necessary budget to social media, and sometimes the excitement to company leadership, as you have learned social media is much bigger than your piece of the business. Now is your chance to step up an help lead your organization into the future. You are amazing storytellers and is now time to use the story inside ths organization to drive the culture change required in the connected era we live. It is time to truly lead your organization and the Customer experience.

I did mention that I expect deep changes in businesses and social media over the next six months and continuing into next year, and now I will outline a few. We are at a stage in social media where push, mass marketing has overwhelmed the space, causing less and less interest in brands. I expect the difficulties with organic performance of Facebook pages to continue to frustrate businesses, leading to many to abandon the efforts. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the employees, businesses, or even Facebook. We may not see social or community management in titles, but these individuals know what the needs of their Customers are and will be invaluable to organizations that want to do things right.

We are moving to an "age of context," as Shel Israel and Robert Scoble so nicely put it in their book, and that will be key to success in the future. The key to seeing that success starts today! The worlds of marketing and communications have been completely changed forever and I have a few recommendations to help you deal with those changes. 

1. First, stop plastering messages everywhere that no one cares about.

I recommend brands step away from many of their existing social media efforts as well as ineffective content marketing efforts. You can feed the bubble as long as you desire, but the reality is at some point it will burst. I would recommend starting to build a huge content library within your own web properties. If you are a service oriented organization, than the content should focus on helping your Customer in all aspects of your product's life cycle. Eventually we will be delivering this information to Customer on and off our web properties, specifically based on their context rather than our own. The reality is that context is owned by the Customer, and my context will be very different from yours. I do expect we will discover context through social media data as well as company owned data. This is where I expect Facebook, Twitter or other social networks will have the opportunity to thrive. At the same time I expect these social networks will work to ensure advertising is not within their properties, but actually off their network using their data.

2. Build a digital culture throughout the organization.

We have to stop thinking within our silo, and realize we are in a connected business and we have to lead the transformation. Social and digital are really a mindset that must be lived throughout the organization. The best example of the transformation going on right now is with the NY Times and the leaked report of their newroom. Altimeter also put out a report that many of you will find useful.

3. Data is currently a hot topic at many institutions, as well as in the minds of many Consumers. Be wise and smart about it – as well as transparent and honest.

We are starting to recognize all the data we leave behind and have no control over. Issues involving this will only grow over the next few years. I expect there will be some companies that will use data properly, while others are not as appropriate. I recommend companies start thinking this through today and offer their Customer a view on how they would use data, and, more importantly, how they would not  -- and within companies, start using the data for insights and meaning, beyond just likes and Retweets. 

We have achieved a very different world, and we did this together. Companies are slowly moving to become more Customer-centric, a little more transparent, and they are realizing they no longer control the message. This is a slow process and more disruptive to some industries than others. The key is understanding that these changes are happening. I even see many companies looking at digital transformation in the way the NY Times is. This is all a credit to you. Change will not always be comfortable, even for us, but together we can see the future. To me that future is bright.

Two other great posts to go with this discussion!

Richard Binhammer's post called The Social Media Road Trip: Right Turn at the Sign. See what happens next

Shel Israel's Scott Monty Leaves Ford: What it Means to Social Media

 

FrankEliason

Frank Eliason

Director of Global Social Media, Citibank

Frank Eliason has been described as the “most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly the world.” By expanding the reach of customer service via social media, and taking the simple approach of asking "Can we help?” he repositioned the relationship between Comcast and its customers. At Citibank, Frank and his team are helping to change the way a global financial institution manages its relationships with a diverse community of consumer, small business and corporate customers—to serve and exceed their expectations and helping build a lifetime of trust between Citibank and its customers.

Frank Eliason is currently Director of Globalof Social Media at Citibank and author of @YourService published by Wiley. Frank became well known in social media for the Customer Service outreach function that his team at Comcast was involved with. This work has been recognized by many news organizations such as ABC News, New York Times, Business Week, among many others. Follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankEliason

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Comments

Nicely done Frank, I agree wholeheartedly. Will definitely share. 

Brands/Companies that use social successfully reap the rewards of customer satisfaction, deeper employee loyalty, more effective knowledge sharing, improved brand reputation, lowered costs, and importantly, increased revenues.

 

This is a very important piece, Frank.  It has me thinking of how we might, at SMT, research this issue and back up your instincts with more data.  More to come.  Also must-reading on this topic, http://t.co/8YvcWkNdiT  Shel Israel writes in Forbes about his take on Scott Monty's departure.

ITA w/ you Frank.. so many of the brands I follow are doing it wrong. Trying to trick me the consumer, trying to sell at me when I'm a loyal customer, trying to gamify this or 'content' that when it's all about them and sell sell sell... wrong. It is about context; it is about real engagement, the kind that helps me; it is about being not doing social. It's also about results and outcomes, sales are only a part.

Everyone loves the Oreo example, myself included. As a business communicator, I thought it was a great example of real time, of how to show some personality, how to tap into the moment - and achieve results. They gained fans and followers, earned lots of media, became more top of mind with many consumers, probably impressed investors on Wall Street. Again many positive outcomes, with the following catch: they didn't do the only thing that so many company's seem to be after, sell. As a consumer, I don't really like Oreos so.. no ad, no clever tweet, no amount of social engagement will ever get me to buy them.

You're right about transparency; about brands living, thinking, breathing social and digital; most importantly, about really focusing on the Customers - what they want, what they need and delivering that. Build a better brand, be a better company, offer something else -- not sure what it would be, but maybe Oreo could make a cookie I'd like. FWIW.

Very interesting and thought-provoking read, Frank! This is one I'll read again as there is meat in this article that is worth taking some time to process and digest. I look forward to seeing changes in how we tend to use social media, even when we don't think we do, in a similar fashion to traditional media. Both have value, but they are different. Thank you!

Spot on Frank. Interested in seeing where we end up.

Frank

Excellent piece. One thing that I do see needing change as we go through the "buyers remorse" period is metrics. By that I mean meaningful metrics. We keep hearing about "Where's the ROI?" and we can push back on that as absurb but what people are really asking is, "How does this help the business?" People see images of cats and just can't make the connection. And why do we post pictures of cats? Because it gamed Edgerank. We have been obsessed with fake metrics pushed on us by platform vendors and championed by agencies because they were easy to deliver to. Fans, followers, reach, mentions, likes, shares - all can be and will be manipulated and will result in poor practice and clog social with commercial trash. 

There is no meaningful benchmark metric - it depends on what you are trying to achieve and we need to understand that setting goal in advance is the way to go. This is much harder to measure but that is the challenge and until then, agencies will take social to the edge of brand disaster.

Some examples are measuring the recruitment of (and enabling) brand advocates, growing the number of socially engaged customers, connections with industry influencers (to use their channels), providing content for and identifying employee advocates etc.

You will know from your Comcast days that the engaged customers that hung about forums and helped fellow customers were invaluable. These people are often far more helpful that the support lines. Telcos were 10 years ahead of other industries. The same is true for high tech companies like Dell, and Apple. BIX was a powerful social network in 1985. Customer engagement has worked but we have been overwhelmed with social as a traditional marketing channel rather than a value added network that benefits the customer.

This requires work, thinking, and rewards systems. No one talks about this as a goal but for many companies it is very powerful as with Citi's own womens Linkedin group.