Businesses missing out on customer engagement through social media
Businesses are failing to capitalise on the benefits of advocacy and user-generated content, says E-Business strategist Deborah Collier who believes many more firms could be leveraging social media platforms and user-generated content for maximum customer engagement.
The recession has forced businesses to look more closely at their marketing spending and the overall service they offer their customers. Gaining the competitive edge has become even more crucial and a focus on online strategy has become an absolute necessity, even for the smallest or most traditional traders. Consumer perception is shifting and for the first time ever, a small player has the potential to compete against the big boys in the market, and win. In today’s climate, a large retailer may have more than 30 stores but through the web, a small business, even a one man band working from their home office, has the potential to have their ‘shop window’ in 20 million homes across the country.
Customer engagement has never been more critical to securing the long-term success of a business. Everywhere you look now you will see brands trying to find new and innovative ways to capture the interest and engagement of their customers in a world where social media and the web are fast replacing more traditional communication methods. But in the rush to jump on the social media bandwagon, many companies risk missing the key elements that make the web so effective as a revenue generating and brand building medium and often, they seem to forget what the original objective was in the first place.
Why user-generated content?
Brand reality is entirely based on your customer’s perception and if planned, built and managed well, a good online strategy can make a small business look like a mini-John Lewis. I always say that an online presence is like having your shop window in every living room in the country, so it is crucial to make sure it delivers what the business needs and equally what the customer has grown to expect from you in the offline world.
User-generated content is becoming commonplace in business because in modern society, people like their voice to be heard. We are no longer in world where being broadcast to brands is deemed sufficient and people feel that their opinions, ideas and thoughts are valuable and they are equally stimulated by the contribution of others.
The online world is increasingly becoming a mirror of the offline world and the same desires and human needs apply as they do in the real world. When looking at user-generated content and engagement, the most common desire and needs include;
– The need to feel valued – through providing their opinion, blogs, comments, reviews. Participation makes people feel valuable.
– Competitiveness – participating in online competitions, getting your artwork or video rated etc
– Vanity – have people vote about your appearance such as whether you are ‘hot’ or ‘not’ on Facebook.
As a result, people often create a persona online of what they want others to believe about them, or what they believe themselves to be. So they can create an idealistic version of themselves. In virtual worlds such as Second Life, this goes even further – where people are creating imaginary characters and this has encouraged a number of businesses to start operating within Second Life too.
But, the real challenge for businesses in the modern world is how they can embrace the concept of user-generated content in a way that satisfies these basic human needs whilst also building brand loyalty. User-generated content has never been more important for brand building as it keeps customers coming back and allowing them to post their own content and ratings, this installs a faith and trust that has not been possible before.
Advocacy on the web
I believe that advocacy is probably one of the most important assets in the offline business world and this needs to be translated into the online world too. Advocacy is far more powerful than simple referrals or exchanging of details. It happens when people are so engaged with your brand and your values that they actively promote and encourage people to work with you. True advocacy is one of those things, which just cannot be bought for any sum of money and only comes from a consistent, open and honest communication strategy that truly engages your customers in the journey.
I am now going to look at some of the key ways to build your advocacy model and encourage participation from customers, suppliers and partners.
Testimonials are one of the simplest ways to help encourage advocacy and build brand credibility online. If you can add Video testimonials too then even better, as it heightens the value and credibility of a testimonials further.
The great thing about testimonials is that they work equally well for those selling services as it does for those selling products. Rating tools are also an effective way to show your value, particularly with products. Amazon’s five star rating is a good example of a product led rating system and testimonials online at business social network Ecademy (www.ecademy.com) show how this system can be leveraged for individuals and service-led propositions.
Providing an online ‘home’ for your testimonials will also encourage your advocates to talk about you in forums, on twitter and in their blogs and they can link back to their original comments and those of others to back up their point of view.
Innovative ways to engage
Customers are multi-dimensional and it is also important to remember that they can be engaged online in a number of ways. Some of the most common ways to engage include:
– Play – through the creation of interactive games
– General Entertainment – such as videos, music, fun articles, jokes and the personalisation of products
– Education – so information about you, your products, other people they know, news etc
– Customer Service – Good quality online customer service tools and facilities – E.g. Online Customer Service, Technical Support Knowledgebase.
Perhaps one of the biggest influences on engagement and advocacy is whether the customer journey lives up to current expectations. Regardless of the product or service being offered, customer service should be available via a variety of channels including Internet, Email and Phone. Customers need to be reassured that if there is a problem, it can be easily resolved and a poor customer service process is one of the quickest ways to stop advocacy dead in its tracks.
Leveraging Negative Chatter
The thing about user-generated content is that it is completely controlled by the thoughts and feelings of the end-user and cannot be controlled or manipulated by a company and this scares many organisations, but if handled correctly, even negative chatter can become positive and lead to even greater levels of advocacy.
Companies that actively engage in debates and conversations and show that they value the thoughts and opinions of even those customers who have negative things to say will be in a much stronger position to adapt their offering if need be and ensure that whatever issues were raised are dealt with effectively and in real time. In cases such as these, sometimes the worst perpetrators of negative chatter can become your greatest advocate, if they are made to feel valued and heard by the organisation.
In essence, well executed user-generated content and advocacy will go hand in hand and are an essential part of any business’s communication strategy in the 21st Century. As the world moves away from broadcast and into an era of multi-way dialogue, customers will form an even more critical part of the evolution of the business and its messages.
Advocates and supporters are critical to any organisation and it is clear that this is a concept that is no longer just relevant to the charity sector. Multimedia tools are enabling businesses across all sectors to get their information out to people who need it in ever more innovative and multifarious ways. Widgets, forums and portals aren’t just gimmicks; they’re developed to allow people to access information in the easiest, most convenient and most fulfilling way. But, it is the online activities led by business’s community itself that have also flourished as a result of Web 2.0, particularly through user forums, blogs and social networking sites and this is where the real e-revolution is only just beginning.
Deborah Collier is Chief E-Business Architect and Managing Director of Echo E-Business, a consultancy specialising in e-business, digital strategy, e-marketing and management.