What is a business to do? While it is tempting to stick one's head into the pre-digital sand, the fact is that organizations today face little choice but to engage with a network of customers that is empowered, vocal, and ready to share their own opinions in social media. To prepare themselves, businesses should apply lessons learned by the failures of others.
Following are 7 lessons that will reduce the risk of social media failures for your own brand:
1. Don't try to fool anybody. In an age of social media, you can only fool some of the people for a fleeting moment, until one of them exposes your deception and broadcasts it for the world to see. While companies may be tempted to plant fake customer reviews on Amazon, Yelp, or blogs, the likelihood of discovery is too high a risk, especially for larger brands. The imagined benefits of something like Wal-Mart's fake customer blog, "Wal-Marting Across America," pale in comparison to the damage to your reputation from its exposure.
2. Follow decorum. The first rule of social media training is that the old rules for employees still apply. When an employee speaks, tweets, posts, or shares a photo on behalf of their company, it should be with the same discretion that they conduct an interview or draft a press release. The second rule is that many employees will need to have the first rule drummed into them. Their experience using these same media for personal conversations can lead to some sloppy habits. If you hire an outside agency to run your social media accounts, it is critical to establish style guidelines and an understanding of their accountability â€" like for the digital agency that was fired by Chrysler after a staff member inadvertently tweeted an obscenity about Detroiters on the auto brand's own Twitter account.
3. Balance oversight with speed. Training and guidelines does not mean you can run every tweet, wall post, and image upload by a committee of legal advisors scattered across your company. An executive at Citi told me that he finally got the company to reduce the 20 legal sign-offs required to post to Twitter when he sent senior leadership a calculation of the cost of each tweet. In a world where customers expect instant replies and interaction, companies need to strike a balance between oversight and speed.
4. Pay attention to tone. Customers expect a more personable voice in social media than on a corporate website or press release. So your social media guidelines need to cover not just what you share, but the tone in which you share it. This should include guidance on how to handle irate or unreasonable customers, as well. Using a condescending or sarcastic tone with customers is always a bad idea, as Nestle learned when a tit-for-tat dispute with a customer on its Facebook wall led to widespread criticism and the departure of fans.
5. Know which tools are not under your control. Some social media channels are controlled more by the account holder, and others are controlled more by the public. It's important for businesses to understand the differences as they start to engage customers. For example, Twitter hashtags (words anyone can use to join a topical conversation), are extremely public. Starbucks learned this lesson when it launched a print ad campaign to promote twitter conversations around #top3percent and found it hijacked by a labor activist's criticism of the company.
6. Invest in customer service. In an age of social media, good customer service is often the best p.r. money can buy. The worst social media fiascoes stem from customers telling tales of terrible service â€" from Jeff Jarvis's "Dell Hell" blog posts, to the "Sleeping Comcast Technician" video on YouTube, to Dave Carroll's viral music video "United [Airlines] Breaks Guitars." Customer service used to be an easy place to cut costs during lean times. But now, businesses should realize that investing in decent quality customer service is a direct defense against the worst risks to their brand.
7. Test launch any big changes to your communications. A number of social media protests have arisen not because of companies' digital marketing, but because of changes to their traditional marketing. Think of the outcry when The Gap tried to change its logo, or when Tropicana tried to change its packaging, or when Motrin ran an ad about back pain from babies that moms found unfunny. Companies should consider pre-testing any major changes to their brand identity in order to gauge customer response, or else launch them with any understanding that they may need to be yanked quickly if customer complaints spiral out of control.
No Heads in the Sand
In an age of social media, brands no longer live in a 24 hour news cycle. It is more like a 24 minute news cycle. This demands speed, nimbleness, and thoughtfulness on the part of business.
Opting out of all social media is not the answer. In fact, many of the most flagrant social media "failures" have stemmed from old-fashioned "offline" screw-ups that get talked about much more by customers now that they have a powerful public voice of their own.
So be aware of the hazards to your reputation, and remember these 7 lessons as you bravely navigate the risks and rewards of engaging with customers in a world where everyone now has a virtual megaphone.
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David Rogers analyzes hundreds of successful and failed digital strategies in his new book, "The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age." He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/david_rogers
image courtesy of flickr user, Chris Daniel