Dan Gingiss is a leader in the social media and customer experience world.
As he states in his bio, Dan believes that "remarkable customer experience can be your best marketing." Dan is a long-time contributor and friend to Social Media Today, the author of Winning at Social Customer Care: How Top Brands Create Engaging Experiences on Social Media, a consultant and an international keynote speaker.
His 20-year career in customer experience has made him an expert in the field, and he has led social media and customer experience teams at Discover, Humana and McDonald’s.
We sat down with Dan and spoke to him about his journey in the industry, and his predictions for the future of social media marketing and customer experience.
Social Media Today: How (and when) did you get started working in social media/digital marketing?
Dan Gingiss: I got started in 2014, and I was the head of Digital Customer Experience at Discover. That was a role that was actually in the marketing area, but my job was to be responsible for the entire website, which was about 50+ million logins a month, it’s obviously the main way that people engage with their credit card. Also, I was in charge of my first social media team, and what’s funny is that when I got that role, which was my fifth role at Discover, the first thing I did was run out and get a Twitter account. I was like "well if I’m going to lead these social media folks I better figure out what all this is about." And believe it or not, at that point (this was April of 2013) I didn’t have a Twitter account.
One of my mentors at the time said to me that the best way to learn Twitter is just to do it, and just don’t be a lurker, start tweeting, see what happens. And that’s what I did, I started tweeting and the rest is history. But that role eventually led to a role of Head of Digital Marketing at Humana. I oversaw social media, email, mobile marketing, and also SEO. Then I was the head of Global Social Media for McDonald’s for a little under a year, and that obviously was just a whole different ball of wax because that is a company that sees literally millions of tags and references every day. The volume is just absolutely crazy.
The other thing is that when I first got into social media, even though I was a marketer, the first thing that stuck out to me was that it was the only marketing channel where people could talk back, and that was really interesting to me. You can’t talk back to a billboard or a Superbowl ad, and so that was fascinating to me. I guess I just sort of caught on quickly that social was not going to be another broadcast marketing channel.
I remember how early on, people thought it would be a great idea to just put your TV commercials onto Facebook. But the thing is, people don’t want to see TV commercials on Facebook any more than they want to see them on TV. What struck me very early on was that the secret was listening to customers, talking with them, answering their questions, and that’s why to me it’s such a unique channel.
SMT: What role has social media played in the growth of your career?
DG:I think the biggest role by far is it’s extended my network.
I have spoken at a lot of conferences, but one of the ones I go to every year is Social Media Marketing World. The first year I spoke at that, I went to a speaker’s party, and [when] I walked in the room, [I] had this out of body experience because I looked around the room and realized that I knew almost every person in the room, but I had not ever met any of them. I knew them because I knew their profile pictures, because I had engaged with them on social media, and a lot of them were social media stars. I “knew” them but I had never actually met any of them. I thought that was amazing.
That year, I met a whole bunch of social media influencers and every year I’ve gone back and I’ve met more, and those have become some of my closest friends, and have helped me both move along in my corporate career by providing great references or advice, and also now are helping me as I’ve gone out on my own as a speaker and consultant because many of those folks have done the same in their careers. They’ve provided amazing advice for me and even helped with finding clients or speaking opportunities.
To me, it’s about building that network, and I try to do the same. I try to pay it forward and do the same with other folks that I meet, and maybe they come to one of my speeches and want to learn from me and I try to pass that forward. To me that’s the most valuable thing. And I guess as a marketer, sort of the way to summarize that is that social media has two words - social and media - and you have to do both well in order to succeed. I think that a lot of companies really got excited about the media part and it took them a little bit longer to get into the social part.
SMT: You recently broke off on your own to consult brands on customer experience and digital marketing. What has your journey been like getting to where you are today and what inspired you to start your own company, Winning Customer Experience LLC?
DG: Well for a long time I’ve been one of those rare creatures that has had a full-time corporate job but has been doing a whole bunch of side hustle stuff. I’ve been speaking for about six years, I'm a podcaster, I’ve written a book, I write for Forbes, I do all this on the side. But what I figured out over a set period of time is that’s the stuff I really like, it’s the stuff that I'm passionate about. And so I happen to be presented with an opportunity: I was essentially leaving the startup I was at, and so there was this moment where I had the choice to go look for yet another corporate job, or to really go out on a limb and say “okay what I really want to do now is the stuff that I love, and it’s time to do it full time.”
What’s amazing to me is as I've broadcast that out to my networks, updated my LinkedIn and all this stuff, it’s amazing to me how many opportunities are coming my way just because people now know that I’m available and whether it’s speaking opportunities or consulting opportunities. My parents always say, “you don’t get what you don’t ask for,” and as I am telling people “hey, this is what I’m doing now as a career,” it’s really interesting what doors are opening up because I've spent so long building this network. It’s been fun, it’s only been a couple of months but I can tell you that I always tell people when I interview that I'm not a morning person, so I judge my job satisfaction based on the number of times I hit snooze, and so I've always desired a zero snooze button job. And I think I've finally found it. I get up every morning and I’m excited because I’m going to work not for the man, I’m going to work for Dan. And I think there’s just something to that that’s invigorating. Plus I’m working on projects that I’m really interested in with great clients. I love speaking on stage so when I get that opportunity it’s really fun for me. So, so far so good!
SMT: You have worked on social media and marketing for some big name brands. Can you tell us about a time you worked with or for a particularly challenging brand and how you managed to help them succeed on social?
DG: Yeah I mean I would say that [out of] all three of the brands that I’ve worked for, two of them are brands that, as I like to say, you don’t wake up in the morning hoping to engage with. One’s a credit card company and one’s a health insurance company. These are not companies that [make] people say “man I hope when I check in to Facebook that I’ve got a message from them!” It’s not who we hope to engage with. And then the third is a company, McDonald’s, which is this gigantic international brand that everybody has a strong opinion about. You either love McDonald’s or you hate McDonald’s. And the challenge there was quite different: The people that love McDonald's absolutely want to hear from McDonald’s. They want to engage with McDonald’s and they’ll hang on every word that goes out on that handle. And the people that hate McDonald’s, whether they are championing obesity or animal treatment or whatever it is, are very loud and vocal, and there’s really nothing that the company is going to do to placate those folks. So I think that was the really interesting challenge there. But what I enjoy, and I saw at both Discover and Humana, [is] the opportunity to show a personality from a brand that you don’t necessarily expect it from. And it’s incredible what the results are.
At Discover, we had one of my favorite examples. A guy tweeted at us and was complaining that he was getting too much junk mail from us. And he basically said “hey, I've gotten three applications for the same card. Are you guys persistent or just uncoordinated?” And our agent responded back and said “wow we must really want you as a customer,” and then gave him instructions on how to get off of the list. And I loved that response, because it’s just a tiny bit snarky, but it’s not rude. It’s just got a little friendliness but a little snark. So this guy writes back, and he says “okay, I’ll bite, just because of your answer #greatcustomerservice.” This guy went from hating on the company because he was getting too much junk mail to applying for the card!
I’ve been telling this story for years, and I realized I never knew the end of the story. [So] five years later, I went back to that original tweet where he tweeted at Discover, and I responded to him from my personal account and said, “I gotta ask you dude, did you ever become a Discover card member?” And he wrote me back and he said, “still a happy customer.” It’s amazing, and that whole back and forth between him and Discover took a grand total of thirteen minutes. It was not just that Discover responded in such a great way, but also that they responded quickly, which you might expect from an airline or a hotel but not necessarily from a credit card company. In thirteen minutes, Discover turned a hater into a customer. And I think the main learning there is that many companies look at customer service as a cost center, but it very much can become a revenue center. When you treat people right, and you engage with them, they are more loyal. They can become your customer, and they tell other people about you so you get that elusive word of mouth marketing. And I think it’s incredibly powerful in terms of growing a business.
SMT: What role do you think customer experience plays in social media marketing?
DG: I think there is a huge connection between customer experience and social media that marketers have to be aware of. It used to be that when people had an experience, they could share it with a couple of friends or a couple of neighbors in person. Today, whether that experience starts off offline or online, we snap a picture of it or a screenshot of it, and we share that with the world. What that means is there’s no such thing as an offline experience anymore, because even experiences that we think have nothing to do with being online can come online in a heartbeat. Think of the guy being dragged off the plane. You used to think that an airplane was a sacred space [where] you turned all your devices off and [were] completely offline, and now even something like that can come online in a heartbeat. Companies have to be aware of every aspect of the customer journey, because at any time, whether it’s a great experience or a terrible experience, somebody can snap a photo of it and bring it online. You should ask yourself with every step of the journey: Is this something that we’d be proud to have people share on social media?
What I teach companies when I work with them is that the research shows that people are more willing to share positive experiences than they are negative. The problem is we don’t have very many positive experiences with brands. There’s just not as much to share. We tend to have a lot of crappy experiences that we’re more than willing to tell people about; but we don’t have very many amazing, jaw-dropping experiences to share. So what I talk about with companies is where in your customer journey can you find your opportunity to up your game just a little bit, it doesn’t have to be really expensive or really time consuming, but where can you find a place to make the experience remarkable? Which is literally “worthy of remark,” and, in theory, worthy of a positive remark. And it’s amazing because I now have a huge library of examples that are inexpensive, simple things, often just having to do with just wording on signs, for example. Who doesn’t love a funny sign that they [can] take a picture of and share? And does a funny sign cost any more than a boring sign? No, it just takes a little bit more creativity. Those are the kinds of things that people remember you by.
The second reason customer experience and social media are so integrated is obviously that (this is what my book is about) once people share positive or negative experiences on social, then there’s an expectation that the brand steps in and engages back. And when it does, and it does effectively like Discover did, that actually feeds back into the perception of the brand. You now have a better feeling about Discover because you’ve seen this happen, you’ve seen this kind of customer go from a hater to a brand advocate. But likewise, if Discover had ignored this guy or worse, some companies if they’re responding and not being polite or nice to their customers, that also has an effect back on people’s perceptions of the brand. It becomes this circle where experience comes online to social, and then what happens in social then feeds back into the experience. And so I think that anybody in social media today has got to be aware of the experience that they are marketing.
One other piece to that is that marketers also have to be aware that the more money they pump into paid media, the more comments and feedback and customer service inquiries they’re going to get. Which means that marketing and customer service have to work hand in hand. Because if I go bump up my spending from one hundred dollars a day to ten thousand dollars a day, my customer service team is going to get inundated with comments that they can’t respond to fast enough which then is going to make the experience for those customers a lot worse. And so you can actually do a lot of brand damage by spending money to market your product on social without working closely with your customer service team.
SMT: What are the biggest social media brand lessons you’ve learned working in the industry?
DG: I think the first is to listen to your customers. Customers are going to tell you what they’re thinking whether you ask them or not. I think that social media is probably the best focus group you can ever find, because you have so much rich data around what people are saying about your brand, what they’re saying about your competitors, what they’re saying about your industry as a whole or your product line as a whole. And if you are listening, you can gather that information and use it in so many different ways. In my book I talk about a number of companies that made new products simply because they were listening to the chatter on social media. They realized that there was some white space that needed to be filled with a product enhancement or with a brand new product. I think that’s a huge opportunity. I would say when I was at Discover it wasn’t uncommon that [when] we found out the website was down, we found out from Twitter. That’s where people are going to go when they find something wrong, even before they’re going to call, and sometimes even before the technology team knew that the website was down. So if you’re not listening for that, then you cant be fixing it fast enough. So I think that’s the first thing, listening.
The second is engaging. Everybody that takes the time out of their day to engage with your brand deserves a response with the exception of trolls, but remember that people who are complaining aren’t trolls if they have a legitimate complaint. People who are complaining, people who are asking questions, and especially people who are complimenting you [deserve a response]. I find that a lot of companies prioritize the problems, which makes sense, [but] they often neglect the people [who] are complimenting. I think that’s crazy, because if you think about somebody taking time out of their day to make a public statement praising your company and you can’t so much as respond back and say “hey thanks for being a customer,” or “thanks we really appreciate you,” that’s a missed opportunity. I always tell people to respond to absolutely everyone.
SMT: What’s your favorite social media platform today and how do you expect that platform to evolve in the coming years?
DG: I still love Twitter despite all of its warts and problems. I love Twitter because that’s where I have made the best network connections. The folks on Facebook are people that were already my friends before they became my capital F Friends on Facebook. The folks on LinkedIn are people that I have worked with, but increasingly [have] just become a network that’s kind of random in terms of the number of people that are always reaching out to connect. But it’s in Twitter where I really still have the genuine engagement. [Aside] from all those speakers at conferences, I always meet other attendees who I’ve never met before, but who I feel like I’ve known for years because we’ve tweeted back and forth, or we’ve participated in twitter chats, or we’ve [direct messaged] each other or whatever it is.
I think that [Twitter] made a big mistake at the beginning with their verification process. The first problem was that they shouldn’t have called it “verified,” because as a marketer, I wish that everybody was verified on Twitter. When I put out a marketing message to @mrgiggles63, I don’t know anything about that person, or even if it’s a “Mr.” It’s just a profile name. But if @mrgiggle63 was verified and we knew that he was a male, age 45 to 55, from the East Coast, well then as a marketer, we [could] target him better. Twitter should verify every user, and then if they want to have some other icon for celebrities or athletes or authors or speakers or whatever it is, then they can do that; but that checkmark is not working. And I think that’s one of the things that they have got to change, because ultimately I think Twitter is still behind in the marketing game. People are pouring dollars into Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter has got to figure out a way to create more value for marketers in order to stay alive. And so to me that’s one of the first steps.
SMT: What’s the best advice you would share with someone new to the field?
DG: Well I absolutely would share the advice I got, which is to just 'jump in and do it'. I still have people today tell me “I don’t do anything on Twitter because I don’t really know what to say and I don’t know how to use it.” I took that advice from my mentor and just started tweeting, and I think that’s exactly what other people should do as well.
And then the other thing is I don’t know if it’s because social media started off as a young person’s game, but I’ve always been a believer that social is not special as it pertains to marketing. It really is just another marketing channel. Now it has some unique qualities to it, the biggest of which is that people can talk back to you, but at the end of the day all of your traditional marketing strategies and frameworks still apply. You still have to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time, which is sort of the most basic thing about marketing. You still can’t grab your bullhorn and just shout your message as loud as possible and hope people listen to you, because that’s not how people consume today. But I think that using traditional marketing strategies in social is a lot better than trying to convince a CMO or another executive that social is special.
For years we had this discussion about what the ROI of social [is]. And yet in any other marketing channel if you don’t have an ROI you don’t get budget. So why shouldn’t social be held to that same standard? I think it should be. I think that’s a ridiculous crutch that marketers use. If you don’t know how to value it, then you should be putting your budget somewhere else.
My advice is "become a good marketer, and you’ll be a good social media marketer". If you become only a social media marketer, that’s a hard thing then to expand elsewhere. I’ve led three social media teams I’ve probably told every person that’s worked for me do not stay in social for your whole career, because your career is going to top out. There’s not a whole lot of companies that have directors of social media, there’s even fewer (I’ve never even heard of one) that has vice presidents or SVPs of social media. So if you are 100% focused on social, and you don’t want to learn about email or web marketing or direct mail (which is still very effective) then your career is going to top out.
That’s probably my number one piece of advice, is that at least today social is not a career. It’s a job along the way, but it’s not going to lead you to the C suite.