Many companies still seem unsure how or why they should be using the new tools offered by “social media” in their relationships with customers. The web is no longer a static, one way, channel. Instead of broadcasting a message to customers and hoping they hear it, we now see conversations being built between organisations (or rather their staff) and customers.
We've moved from a web that was little different to print—static reams of content updated once in a blue moon—to one of rapid bursts and interaction. The inevitable result is that organisations have lost control of the conversation, and the trick of social media is to embrace that loss of control. Why? Because it gives you an unprecedented opportunity to listen to customers and engage directly with them, one human being to another.
Sadly, many organisations listen to all this, nod sagely, and think to themselves “great, how do we fake this authentic communication?”. You can't, at least not for long. If you try to use the new tools as just another way to bombard customers with your ad messages then you're missing out on a great opportunity. It's worth looking at the people and companies who are popular on Twitter, to see what they get right.
Stephen Fry is probably the leading Brit on Twitter, and for good reason. Why? Because he understands that what is new and interesting about Twitter is the opportunity to build conversations with his fans.
Innocent Drinks can't compete with Fry in terms of numbers of followers, but then they are a company rather than an avuncular national treasure. Their "tweets" are a good model for unmoderated, real, conversations between customers and employees. Particularly interesting to see how they handle potentially unpopular decisions like the recent Coca Cola investment.
Aleksandr Orlov is doing very well for a fictional meerkat. He's a good example of how you can fake it, at least for a little while. On the other hand that tells you more about the success of a surprisingly joined-up advertising campaign than it does about customer engagement with comparethemarket.com.
Richard Branson, sadly, is an example of how not to do it. Despite having a lot of followers, Branson is treating Twitter as a channel to push news stories and events on his agenda, not to build conversations with customers.
So the secret is to let go, and allow your staff to have real conversations with customers. Organisations that embrace this will be jumping on board the cluetrain, allowing employees throughout their organisation to engage in natural conversations with customers through Twitter, blogging, forums and so on. My favourite soundbite from our client conference was from Graham Parker-Gore of VW Group (he was quoting someone else but I forget who!):
“Sacrifice perfection of message for honest communication”
This is the cluetrain philosophy in a nutshell.
The alternative is to try in vain to keep control over everything that is said about you. Delete any negative comments on your blogs or forums, edit Wikipedia articles to remove anything you'd rather people didn't know, pretend to be enthusiastic customers, pay professional fake customers to post positive things about your products, sue anyone who uses your name in a website (positive or negative) and allow no one but the marketing department to talk to the outside world.
The one thing we know for sure is that what worked in the past won't work in the future. Companies that behave like this are as clueless about the web as the music industry, destroying themselves in a desperate bid to protect their business because they just don't get it.