Experts will tell you, and they'll make a pretty good case too, that social media is the golden key to unlocking meaningful customer relationships and the gateway to surprising and delighting them over time. So how does social media do this? All it takes is to listen, be part of the conversation, curate great content, run native advertisements, and oh yeah, be transparent and authentic. Done and done.
Well, wrong and wrong.
Social media isn't going to save your business nor is it going to make it. This may sound commonsensical, but to succeed in business takes much more than a Facebook or Twitter account. Hostess baked over 400,000 likes on Facebook and yet the iconic American brand is now shut down. Even small businesses are not immune to the real world. According to the SBA, over 50% of small businesses fail in the first five years. Social media isn't saving those businesses either.
Michael Ames, author of Small Business Management, assembled the top 8 reasons that contribute to small business failure and you'll notice not embracing social media isn't one of the contributors:
1. Lack of experience
2. Insufficient capital (money)
3. Poor location
4. Poor inventory management
5. Over-investment in fixed assets
6. Poor credit arrangements
7. Personal use of business funds
8. Unexpected growth
From experience, there are two other ingredients that serve as harbingers to the future of any business, under scoping or underestimating sales and marketing and underemphasizing product quality and customer experiences.
In any one of these scenarios, social media is not your saving grace-regardless of business size, number of followers, or however many viral videos you've introduced.
Am I saying that social media is useless?
It is after all where connected consumers are spending a significant amount of time these days. Nielsen recently found that Americans spend 121 billion minutes per month in social networks, which is significantly up from 88 billion just one year ago.
I do believe that many experts are however taking their eye off of the ball in the name of social media. But success takes design, intent, and the relentless pursuit of opportunities even when they are elusive. As a digital analyst and also an entrepreneur and investor, I've learned that technology is always going to introduce new channels for engagement. And, that's a good thing. But they are not in of themselves channels for necromancy. The ability to surprise and delight customers starts with the ability to understand how to exceed expectations. And, even before that, it takes an understanding of what expectations are and where they're met or missed.
So, here's where social media can help.
Listening with Intent
Listening is among the most valuable ways to use social media for business relevance and ultimately success. However for it to offer true value begins with the questions you chose to answer. For example, in addition to asking, "what are people saying about me or my competitors," also ask, "what are people saying or seeking in to improve what they're doing today?" It's the difference between information and insight and also listening to and hearing customers in a way that inspires innovation or iteration.
Designing the Experience
To deliver exceptional customer experiences takes experience design. You have to articulate, thoughtfully, what you want people to feel, say, and share. This is more than defining differentiators and value propositions. Businesses must think through how products and services evoke the original inspiration for starting or joining a company and the ongoing aspirations necessary to exceed expectations in the future. Social media then represents a series of open windows to engage customers during each and every moment of truth before, during and after transactions to reinforce experiences and desired sentiment. Think marketing, sales, service, support, and word of mouth.
Paying it Forward
If social media is about conversations you can bet that much of it is based on people asking questions. People are often looking for answers or direction. Rather than "Googling It," it's easier to ask those you trust. In this economy where trust is fleeting and transparency is elusive, there's a tremendous opportunity to become the resource in your community. Don't sell...instead; sell through the art of reciprocity. Customers feel a sense of appreciation for those who help and provide value.
The Power to Tell
As my good friend Peter Guber says, storytelling or Telling to Win helps people align with your mission through aspirations or solutions. Don't sell just on price or features. Make your customers the hero by helping them see what they can accomplish simply by aligning with you. If you use social media, don't just post questions, polls, or random pictures, unleash a gravity that pulls customers to you because they can clearly see that you "get" them and the things they struggle or hope to accomplish with or without you.
These are just a few ways to think about social media. But, there are many many other initiatives that you can consider that deliver value during each moment of truth. You have to consider though, that social media represents a series of new channels that complement other avenues that define your digital and real world opportunities. There is no one way to reach all of your customers and prospects.
And that's what makes these times so challenging. You can't assume however that building a distributed presence is good enough. You don't have time for that. Growth and success are intentional, which means you can't afford to stumble your way around them. There are customers to earn now and yes, technology is changing how you'll reach them over time. See, the people who represent your customers 10 years from now are not the people who you reach today.
Ten years, you say?!
Well, perhaps that's too far to appreciate. The same is true though for three and four years from now.
Start with getting to know who your customers are and what they need...and how to help them. Then let it inspire you to create meaningful marketing strategies, relevant products and services, and desirable engagement channels in the moments of truth in the medium of preference.
If you don't continually invest in the awareness of your value or experience you cannot benefit from consideration.
You are now perpetually competing for the future. Social media is one of the channels that now present you with yet another opportunity to truly engage with your customers. In the end, you have to think deeper about this opportunity. Just because you're in business doesn't mean you'll stay in business. If you stop competing for attention and relevance you by default stop competing. This is your time to not just survive but thrive.
What do you think? How else can social media help businesses contribute to business success while helping foster customer and employee relationships and experiences?