Monday, October 26, 2009

Foundations of Social Media: Something New? Or Tried and True?

Many businesses are venturing out into the world of social media, trying to grasp how they might leverage this “new” vehicle to drive sales, develop their brands and interact with their customer base. In today's post, I thought I'd illustrate how social media is actually founded on more simple, classic principles of doing business. Incidentally, this is a major contributor toward the success of social media in becoming a powerful vehicle for marketing communications.

First, let's examine the human factor inherent in this modern paradigm. Social media facilitates the often missing aspects of modern day human relationships, which are especially relevant for companies working within today's competitive climate. These often overlooked, yet very important, elements of human interaction have descended down the priority list. In doing so, something special has been lost regarding the relationship between the consumer and a company or service. The primary elements of human interaction, such as “liking” and “trusting” the people one is engaged in conversation with, have gotten lost in the hustle and bustle. This is affecting consumer loyalty, among other things (that is, until the recent emergence of social media). This, and the concept of reciprocity, were lost until more recently, when they have once again found their place using this vehicle.

Just a few years back, before social media was becoming mainstream, companies like UPS, Saturn, Diet Coke (think women lusting after the handsome delivery guy) were among many recognizing the need to reintroduce the human element back into the communications mix. By featuring employees in their advertising, they were personifying the brand. The aforementioned are examples of great campaigns, but to truly have a personal relationship, two way communication (at least) is required. Many of the typical call center customer assistance centers try but fail to supplement this interaction, which is often over-scripted, outsourced, or all too often unresolved.

Social media makes two way (and even three way, etc.) communication easier and more authentic than was possible with former efforts. Companies now have a way to engage consumers, learn as consumers engage each other, and participate when necessary as a genuine expert in the conversation. This is increasingly important as the consumer, who has traditionally been thought of as the “receiver” of communications, has become the “sender” of a modified message to other consumers. (Click this link for a great article on receivers becoming senders, by Gary Stein.)

Let's go back to the classical, older models of doing business for a moment. There once existed a widely accepted (even expected) way of doing business – I think of it more like a “Let's go see Bernie, the local hardware store guy,” manner of doing business. In this example, consumers could visit a local store with a given question. Anyone could do this with the knowledge that Bernie would be working consistently until 7pm from Mon-Sat, and was always happy to help. As a result, Bernie often would have customers bringing in random faucet parts, etc. He would have a quick “looksie,” answer as many questions as he could, provide his recommendations and maybe even jerry-rig the part. Bernie was happy to do something for his customers, who were obviously in need of his help, and wanted nothing in return. But this interaction did give him something in return (reciprocity). The trust, friendship (or acquaintanceship), not to mention additional recommendations and referrals to other customers were enough to satisfy Bernie. The company Bernie worked for appreciated it too, knowing the benefits of having someone around who could establish rapport and trust with its consumer base.

With social media, the importance of this interaction has resurfaced. SM provides a vehicle in which the local, more personalized business transaction can be reintroduced into the mix. Previous mandates of telephone scripts and corporate liability statements have rendered these transactions dormant in more recent years. The introduction of social media gives corporations a wonderful opportunity to find someone who believes in them to represent their company. This is good for internal morale and for bringing the human element into the mix again. It engages consumers in more authentic, less scripted conversation. Mind you, this doesn't mean a business should overlook the development of a social media strategy. Quite the opposite, actually. It simply means that in today's world, social media gives companies the chance to value those who work for them and have passion about their company, products, and what they do. Who better than these people to interact with your consumer, or former “receiver” turned “sender” of your company's message?

In the end, simple and classical business interactions are what lie at the foundations of social media, and ultimately will ensure its ongoing success. So when a client asks you about the “new” thing – social media – you might prompt them to consider whether it really is something scary and new, or something tried and true!