Listen, Learn, Engage and Integrate – 4 rules for brands using social media Part 1

 In social media

I have been fairly quiet on the blogging front of late (inversely more active on twitter), but in between posts I have been spending a lot of time talking to large, well known companies about their social media strategy.  Like many in the mainstream press, I keep reading that social media / Twitter / Facebook etc  is “just a fad”.

To counter this view, you only need to read a great quote in Campaign Magazine from Philippa Brown who is the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK. In her recent guest article titled “Social media can be great for business. If only agencies knew” she writes

“I was recently talking to a potential client who was looking to move agencies, and I asked them why they were unhappy with their current arrangements”.  The client shot back at me: “They don’t give us any leadership in social media… I know it is something we should be looking at, but I don’t know what we should be doing”.

I hear a lot of similar comments (mainly of the sort “I don’t know what we should be doing”) and think to myself that it sounds a lot like where we were with the internet in the late 1990’s – ie “we know we need to be on the web but don’t know what we should do”.  Many reading this post will be old enough to remember the internet well before it became mainstream and at the centre of how companies do business.

Way back then when I was in Sydney working for Telstra, I was fortunate enough to be head of  Business Development & Marketing Strategy and involved in a really exciting customer event called Solutions 2000.

One of the keynote speakers for this event was Professor Nicholas Negroponte, and his takeaway sound bite that still resonates 9 years later was

“everyone is talking about ‘eBusiness’ at the moment but in a few years we won’t call it eBusiness – it will just be the way we do business”.

This is so true of where “social media” is today.  In just a few years we will probably just refer to it as “media” or simply communication – it won’t have its own label, and there will probably not be large number of “social media experts” all scrambling to have a voice about something at the moment that is new and untested.

Imagine today if I called you and said I was an “internet expert”.  You would just laugh at me.

In speaking to a number of practitioners in this new space, I have summarised 4 key steps that companies need to be aware of when planning for social media.

1. LISTEN

There have always been conversations about people, brands, companies and governments.  The latest web based tools and networks have simply allowed these conversations to be amplified and communicated to a global audience.  The problem with this for companies is that now they have no control over their brand and how it is being perceived in the real world.

Until recently, discussion in groups about a product, service or brand was just that – in local and contained groups.  Brands relied on the fact that they owned the access to broadcast channels (TV, Radio, press, outdoor and to some extent the web) to send their message out – at a much louder volume than could be achieved by an individual or even a small group of people.

Social media – being global, real time and hyper connected now allows even an individual’s thoughts, experiences and feelings to be amplified above that possible by even a multinational brand in a simple tweet.

If you don’t believe me, Google “United breaks guitars” and see how one man’s lack of satisfaction with a brand wiped $180 million off their stock price in a matter of days.

In this day and age, not listening to your customers can be a costly mistake.

Social media IS going mainstream.  When one of the world’s leading financial newspapers, the Financial Times (and supposedly Obama’s source of expert opinion) runs a story on twitter almost every two weeks, you know it is being discussed in the boardrooms of major companies.  It is also being discussed by the general public.

Recently I overheard a conversation between 3 people at a local Starbucks, where one said “I meant to tweet it to you yesterday…“.

Companies should be left in no doubt that there is a step change happening in the way consumers receive marketing messages, and also where they receive their recommendations for products and services they are interested in.

As an aside, have a look at a recent post here titled Advertising in 2020 – a sneak peek from Ogilvy and Acision where I discussed the topic of peer advocacy and how advertising will look in the future as a result of social media.

The way brands market to consumers is about to change forever.  Those brands that act now have a chance of at least protecting their brands, because they can no longer claim they own the sole rights to their brand messages.  Power is moving firmly to the hands of the people thanks to the power of social networks.

This step change will also require rapid updates to marketing theories and education.  Students who recently commenced a marketing degree will find that the skills they are acquiring may actually be out of date before they graduate.

This itself warrants a separate post on the future of marketing education – so stay tuned to London Calling for regular updates (why not subscribe to the RSS feed?)

2. LEARN

Once companies have started to listen to what is being said about them, they are in a unique position to be able to analyse and understand more about how they need to adapt their processes and marketing messages.  Companies that invest NOW in listening and learning will be best positioned to ride this new social media wave – and gain a clear competitive advantage.

From the data gained in the “listen” step, companies can analyse the conversations occurring online and learn a great deal from them – such as “what is driving the conversation around our brand?” – is it due to a recent marketing campaign or advertisement?  Is it because we changed something?  Did one of our customers have a negative experience and are telling each other rather than telling us?

The sort of information that can be gleaned from social network “chatter” is the sort of stuff that marketing and product managers are crazy for as budgets are being slashed and access to primary market research is becoming more difficult.

And here is the interesting thing.  Until now, “social media” has been associated with only the PR or corporate communications departments of companies.

Many people I speak to say that the social media “team” (if there are enough people to actually call them a team) either sit in the PR area, or somewhere in marketing – or in “no man’s land” somewhere in-between looking for a home and a corporate sponsor.

When I was a product developer at Optus in the late 1990s, I never spoke to the PR team at all (we had no need to).  I would have craved the information available to them today about the products we were developing if it had existed and been available to me.

Important lesson: Don’t hide the social media team out of sight and in the PR team – allow them to access every section of the company – marketing, research, customer service, even recruitment.

This may seem to be “jumping the gun” as indeed many companies in the UK aren’t even ready to have the PR team take on social media responsibilities.

Interestingly, I met with a leading social media practitioner from the US a few weeks ago.  He was amazed by the state of social media in the UK and went as far as saying that “The UK is 12 months behind the US when it comes to social media”.

He’s probably right.  This means that we know how the story will end in the UK – that companies will really start to grasp the power of social media in early to mid 2010 (possibly earlier the way the market is developing) so it’s time to start planning now.

This post is already becoming quite long so I will look at steps 3 & 4 (Engage and Integrate) in a follow up post as these are probably the most important going forward and warrant a post of their own – stay tuned for part 2!

In the meantime why not follow me on twitter @andrewgrill to see when part 2 is on the site.

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Futurist Keynote Speaker and former IBM Global Managing Partner, Andrew is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption and emerging technologies. He is a multiple TEDx & International Keynote Speaker. Watch his speaking showreel here, enquire about availability & fees here.