‘Social Media’

Now that is a term that confuses, frightens, angers and generally irritates that hell out of too many people. (And I don’t blame you for any of those feelings.)

But let me pose a question that you should try think about in your business.

The Background

An American traveling to Toronto arrived by Canada’s Porter Airlines. This chap was seriously impressed with Porters’ service and sent out a note via Twitter how great that service was. (For full size image click here)

Social Media

But?

But here is the thing. I was not being fair when I opened this up with just the words ‘an American’.

That ‘American’ was Mr. Peter Shankman. If you don’t know of Mr. Shankman, he publishes a very popular newsletter titled Help A Reporter Out or HARO, that connects journalists with possibles sources for articles they are writing. That newsletter, (at least the last I heard) has about a hundred thousand readers. Oh and Twitter? as of this writing just over ninety-one thousand people follow Mr. Shankman there.

The SMB Takeaway

Mr. Shankman had a great experience with Porter airlines and chose to let close to 100,000 people know of it. On its own? great (and free!) word of mouth advertising.

But what if Mr. Shankman has been seriously ticked off by your business?

Would you even know if someone told one hundred thousand other people that your business or service  sucks?

Would you even have a clue that a possibly momentous event just happened?

Answer that question. And ask yourself if maybe you should be listening.

As I stated in the opening sentence, I don’t blame you for the confusion or frustration that the term ‘social media’ can give rise to. But sometimes? Ignorance is not bliss.

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OK, it does not need to be a bar, it could also be a grocer, hardware store or gasoline station.

But whatever the location, you hear somebody viciously complain about shitty service,  lousy support or useless sales reps in your business.

You are completely shocked.

What do you do?

One obvious option is to make sure your security badge is off, and to turn the marketing brochure you are carrying upside down so they can’t see that you work for that firm and then sneak out.

If that is your choice, thanks for visiting, I wish you all the best.

If your choice was to immediately state; I couldn’t help overhearing you, my sincerest apologies about your incident, can you tell me what happened so we can resolve your issue?

Then you can look at this next stage.

As an executive in a small to medium business, you may not have consciously thought about it, but what you are doing is a person to person, one to one conversation about something that happened with your business.

You also know that if you can rectify the situation, that disgruntled person will tell at least two  friends how great it was – a word of mouth recommendation has started.

So where am I going with this?

I challenge you to turn on the television, read a paper, or flip through a magazine; And then tell me that you did not hear or read the terms social media, or social marketing. You have heard about them; Twitter, Facebook, blogs, you name it.

It seems to be the biggest buzzwords of our business generation.

As an executive, you are rightly wondering what benefit can be had, or maybe wondering if you should you bother, or perhaps just what the hell all the hype is about.

There are many people smarter that me that can tell you about actively working with these new tools, since I am not an expert, I will leave that to  them.

But consider passively listening to them.

Why?

For the same reason you spoke up in that situation I mentioned above.

In my example, you heard that conversation because you happened to be standing there. But I guarantee that those types of conversations are happening in other places too, you just aren’t standing there to hear them.

Did you know that a popular figure in your region wrote your company sucks! on his blog, his face book page and twitter?

The effect could be like Consumer Reports trumpeting don’t buy this product, or the popular restaurant guide saying don’t eat here.

Before you think those are to unlikely to happen, lets look at this little blog of mine. I don’t get the millions of people visiting that some of the big name writers do. But I do write for one particular niche, as it says in the header, about tech for non-tech manager in the small to medium business.

Even though this is no A list blog, It still gets a little less than 2000 people per month visiting its virtual digital doorway.

So what if I bitch about your product?

And what if only one of those 2000 people per month were negatively influenced about your product or service?

The SMB Takeaway

There are a myriad of tools from freebies like Google alerts to monitoring services.

Before you write off these new social tools, consider at least listening to what people are saying about you

Think about it.

Monitor The Conversation

Photo Credit leafar via flickr

Here is an article from Baseline Magazine quoting statistics on banning social media from the workplace;

Do social networking sites serve as useful tools for connecting within the business world, or are they simply time-wasters? More than half of enterprise IT leaders lean toward the latter perspective, according to a new survey conducted amongst 1,400 CIOs by the employment experts at Robert Half Technology

I have to say that I completely and utterly disagree with that perspective.

First, although I don’t like the term social media, that concept of listening to our customers is here to say. Not only is it critical that we listen, but as Nabil Harfoush CIO, SVP Corporate Development at HelpCaster Technologies Inc. states, we need to be willing to act;

True conversations require not only active listening but also a readiness to change your position based on the conversation.

And there certainly is no way to act, if there is no way to listen!

And second, the primary argument used for banning social media is simply fear.

As Baseline wrote, the fear that someone will be wasting their time.

Generalizations?

I have a big problem with that generalization.

It is called management people!

If one person in your organization is consistently late; Rather than deal directly with that infraction, management edicts chain everybody at a desk for exact sets of hours.

Or perhaps one individual takes a much to liberal interpretation of the dress code, so again, forget dealing with the infraction, punish everyone though more management edicts.

This is simply poor leadership – it is a failure to deal with the immediate issue. As Margaret Heffernan at FastCompany writes in Ten Habits of Incompetent Managers;

“I know she’s always late, but if I raise the subject, she’ll be hurt.”

Ahh, poor you. Ban or punish using generalization instead of dealing with what is a leadership and staff issue.

Now, feel free to debate creating a Social Networking policy, perhaps you can use an existing acceptable use one. Or maybe, as Michael Hyatt writes, you prefer none at all.

But at the end of the day, if an individual is abusing Facebook at work, deal with it.

Deal with it as an individual infraction.

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Two incidents prompted this post, the first incident occurred directly to me, the second was a conversation with strategist and researcher Esteban Kolsky that started via twitter when he was stranded in an absolutely wild  number of airports on an attempted flight home. That conversation continued into several blog posts.  For the background to this, read Mr. Kolsky’s full article here.

Esteban’s Story;

After the twitter conversation and blogging about his trip from hell, (if you have not read that full story yet, follow that link!) some social media monitoring staffer at the airline concerned actually responded. The response included some token gesture, but no ability to go further to drive change within the organization.

My Story;

Mine was much simpler, via a social media channel, someone broadcast a request that basically stated; Hey I need this…”

I responded that; “hey, we do that…let me get one of our sales folks to give you a call ” (ok that was the shortened version, we actually connected via the phone)

In Esteban’s case, the ‘social media’ responder was powerless to do anything about the root cause of his problem, in mine, I don’t have the position to enforce a response either. So no one bothered.

Here is the thing.

What we loosely call the marketing (or reputation) side of social media can provide another channel for both raising awareness of your brand (or business) or to assist in defending that brand. (ie support / customer service)

But there is absolutely zero reason to go through this effort, if you have no intention of acting on what you have learned!

If you do a mystery call with your support or customer service team, and they state that for your particular problem, that the corporate policy is something along the lines of; we don’t give a damn. Do you think that the same response via a social media platform is going to make any difference?

Ummmm no

In Esteban’s story, the social media monitor actually offered a token gesture for his very long issue. Which in  my opinion is a company that has a t least started to try to improve. (Can you imagine how many hours the legal teams at a mega-corporation would argue about some front end staffer being able to give even the smallest token gesture?)

Now I really don’t like the word empowerment. It reminds me too much about Dilbert cartoons.

But like it or not, it fits into the theme of this post.

In their Harvard Business Press book IT Savvy authors Peter Weill and  Jeanne W. Ross state;

every employee who interacts with customers can be armed with information on the customer and the firm’s products to ensure a quality interaction.

So go ahead and talk about it

Sure, monitor it.

But if your staff can’t do anything about it – If they can’t make a change. Even if that change is simple acknowledgment that a voice has been heard and recorded,

What good is it?

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Mitch Joel is the President of Twist Image, a fantastic writer  and a recognized expert in digital marketing and the application and management of what we loosely call social media.

In his book; Six Pixels of Separation the author presents an excellent argument on how the world of marketing, communications, PR – in fact business itself! – has changed in our digital world.

As an introduction to the text, let me quote the publisher;

This is the first book to integrate digital marketing, social media, personal branding, and entrepreneurship in a clear, entertaining, and instructive manner that everyone can understand and apply.

Owners and Managers in the small to medium enterprise, let me say it clearly;

Read This Book!

Some Historical Background will tell you why.

Almost a decade ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger published a seminal text titled; the Cluetrain Manifesto

In that treatise they argued that consumers now demand that business has to open up the kimono, that they must become more transparent, and that business must revert to the public marketplace or commons. And that to move towards this new public marketplace would require moving out from the opaque Orwellian box that business had been living in.

In Six Pixels of Separation, Mitch Joel extends the boundaries of that theme by demonstrating that in our 21st century digital age, monitoring and embracing this Marketplace or Commons is no longer optional – it is mandatory.

It is mandatory because within that commons, people are already talking about you. They are praising, criticizing, disseminating, lambasting and generally sharing information about your business anyway! Those digital communications are happening right now – the question is;

Do you even know what is being said about you?

If you don’t believe it; consider that a decade or so ago it took very persistent reporters and motivated NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) to drop the branding bombshell on Nike’s sweatshop labour practices.

Then compare that with the recent famous (or infamous) United Breaks Guitars video’s or the Domino’s pizza spoilage video. No cloak and dagger travel across the world required. From thought to on-line in no time at all.

Mr. Joel clearly demonstrates that for consumers in our open marketplace, they require trust. They require that there is authentic two way communication between business and consumer. The author clearly demonstrates ways to begin building that.

I do point out one caveat though

Much of the text describes case studies of individuals successfully utilizing these digital tools to drive branding, often to very lofty heights, but that is the caveat; the majority of the examples are individuals, not businesses. I am sure that this is partially because transformational case studies by businesses are probably still a little thin.

But this is a learning curve that we have to go through; namely what are the risks of personal branding within your business, vs. the branding of your business?

This is a question that needs to be thought about because as most small business owners and managers know, the brand recognition and equity you have has to belong to the company – not to you.

Does that brand equity rub off on the business? – or stay with the name?

I don’t have that answer.

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A Facebook group with 4,200 members is complaining that your product ‘sucks’.

And Twitter streams start echoing that complaint.

And to top it off, major media outlets such as the Washington Post start using those Facebook and twitter complaints to collect information for for news releases about the issue.

The thing is- all of these are not coming from your direct customer, but indirectly from your customers customer!

I think that this would classify as a B2B vendors greatest nightmare.

Bob Evans, at Informationweek.com points out that A Maryland school district with 22 high schools and a $4.1 million investment in an IT system from Canadian based supplier, Harris Computer Systems, had 8,000 students napping in gymnasiums because the software would not correctly generate the students class schedules.

At this point there has been no clarification of what the root cause of the issue is;

Is it a software failure?

An implementation failure?

But in the end, the reason does not matter!

The wide open world we call Social Media is amplifying and echoing a very negative view of the product. The Information Week article points out that a representative of Harris stated that they are assisting the school board in any way possible, but is that enough?

A look at the Harris Web Site does not reveal a blog or other method documenting how they are working to assist their customer in rectifying what is an embarrassing issue.

The transparency and immediacy of Social Media puts many organizations into the difficult position where their internal Public Relations teams are not fast enough, not relevant enough, and not transparent enough to attempt to undo the damage being done.

What makes this more difficult in the B2B space, is that our response must walk the fine line between transparency and blame.

I do believe there is a lesson here for other Canadian business in the B2B space, if this type of event happens to you;

Are you ready?

Do you have a transparent reaction planned?

If you don’t, you might just want to think about that.

Two notes about the above post, the above content was also posted to IT In Canada

And Second, Tim Walker at Hoovers challenged us to do our own posts utilizing the same Creative Commons image by Sherman Tan, challenge met!

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Photo Credit Sherman Tan via flickr

Personally I believe that the broad term Social Media (too broad a term in my opinion) can assist SMB’s in communicating, providing service, or marketing to our customers.

But!

Like any initiative, you need to understand what you are trying to achieve. You need to understand your customers, your market, and most important, how they look for service or sales information.

In fact I have seen many small businesses that would truly benefit from social media, but that will be another post.

Below are a couple of great articles on the pitfalls of thinking social media without the planning;

Frank Reed on the Marketing Pilgrim blog; Social Media Is Important to Everyone – Not!

And Gene Marks over at Business Week; Beware Social Media Marketing Myths

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