Change was in the air at Social Media Marketing World in San Diego last week.
For a conference that - as the name suggests - focuses on marketing, a distinct theme emerged in year five of the industry's largest annual get-together: Customer Experience.
Social Media Examiner CEO Michael Stelzner called social media the "fastest-changing industry on the planet" in his opening keynote, "Social Media Marketing in 2017: What the Newest Research Reveals". He spoke at length about the sophisticated algorithms at Facebook and Google that "are a nightmare for marketers".
Why are algorithms a nightmare? Because "Google and Facebook want people to see quality content," Stelzner said. "Algorithms are designed to help consumers, not marketers."
Translation: Google and Facebook are focused on the customer experience, even if it means frustrating the advertisers that keep them in business.
The answer, Stelzner revealed, is that "companies should refocus on their community by being helpful".
This is a fundamental change for advertisers and marketers, who are used to being able to shout their message with a bullhorn. In social media, people get to talk back, so marketers have to do more than sell. They have to create content that's useful, engaging, and generally additive to customers' lives.
Scott Monty, a social media and marketing consultant, blogger, and podcaster, emphatically reiterated this point in his presentation entitled, "Why We've Failed: The Customer Is No Longer Our Focus".
"Social media was supposed to get us more customer-focused, personalized and conversational," he said, "but we've lost our way". He noted that "trust matters" because consumers today trust someone they know more than anyone else and "all it takes us one misstep and trust disappears".
Citing the Roman philosopher Cicero, Monty said that marketing should "think my thoughts, feel my feelings, speak my words" and that brands must be authentic, responsive, and compelling in their communications to consumers.
But beyond that, companies need to start with a great product.
"You're not going to get anywhere if you have a crappy product or service," he said, adding that "social media amplifies what's wrong with your business".
His answer? Make your customer feel like a "king or queen" for a day to show them how much you care about them. Now that sounds like a great customer experience.
Joey Coleman, a recognized expert in customer experience design, would agree. Coleman, who delivered a stellar keynote on the big stage in front of more than 3,000 people, talked about "Turning Customers into Life-Long Advocates in the First 100 Days".
"We subject our customers to a roller coaster of emotions every time they do business with us," he began, citing some downright scary statistics - including the fact that between 20% and 70% of customers leave a given business within the first 100 days. But if they stay until day 101, he added, customers will remain loyal to the company for an average of 5 more years.
"If you don't prioritize your client, someone else will," Coleman warned, adding that if companies create remarkable experiences in real life, it will translate into social media when customers share with friends and followers.
Customer experience thought leader Blake Morgan concurred in her presentation, suggesting that "everyone from the CEO down needs to understand their customers' lives and how they experience the brand".
"Your digital strategy must consider the life your customer is living. How will you leverage digital to make your customers' lives better?" she asked.
Even presentations with titles that had nothing to do with customer experience focused heavily on listening to customers and catering to their wants and needs.
In her talk entitled, "How to Create Breakthrough Written Marketing Content," MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer Ann Handley reminded marketers that "the reader isn't thinking what you're thinking" and asked the audience to take a pledge that they "will have pathological empathy for the reader". Not coincidentally, empathy is perhaps the #1 characteristic of a superstar customer service agent.
Handley also cited Simple Bank as a great example of a seamless customer experience, noting that they even take legally required language and make it fun and understandable for the customer.
Similarly, in his presentation entitled, "Growth Hacking: How to Use Social Media to Rapidly Grow Your New Business or Product," social media consultant and author Neal Schaffer told his audience: "If you really want to be successful at social media marketing, you need to pivot with communities." In other words, listen to what the audience wants and deliver that. "Social media is a huge focus group that's free," he added.
Schaffer shared an example of car maker Acura taking a picture of customers in their new car while it's still in the showroom and sending it to them so they'll share it on their social media channels. This isn't just a marketing ploy; it's also a way for Acura to extend the customer experience beyond the showroom, exposing it to a broader audience.
And when Marcus Sheridan, the content marketing genius and self-proclaimed "Sales Lion", took the stage for his session on "7 Powerful Strategies for Building a World-Class Content Marketing Plan," he focused on - you guessed it - the customer.
"It doesn't matter what we want to tell them, it matters what they want to know," he said, adding that "the most powerful content marketing tool in the world is your ears".
The fact is that both social media and marketing are important parts of the overall customer experience, which, by definition, includes every single interaction a customer has with a brand.
What's become clear to many of the distinguished speakers at this year's Social Media Marketing World is that by focusing on the customer, we can not only improve our marketing and increase sales, we can keep our customers happier, longer.
Images: Marcus Sheridan (top) and Joey Coleman speak at Social Media Marketing World in San Diego. Photos by Dan Gingiss.