Social media lets you listen to your customers

I’m working on a media release (honest!), but came across this blog post from James Dickey, reporting on one of the presentations made at Blogwell on January 22, 2009. Eight organizations (Procter & Gamble, Home Depot, the Mayo Clinic, the US Coast Guard, H&R Block, Sharpie, Walmart, and Allstate) presented case studies on their use of social media in a single afternoon in Chicago.

I would have loved to attend, but Chicago’s a long way to go for an afternoon, and given the uncertainties of winter travel from YVR, I decided to live vicariously and hope the presentations were filmed for future consumption

I really like the goal-oriented approach outlined by Stan Joosten, Director of Holistic Consumer Communications for Proctor & Gamble. It’s a classic example of strategy-in-action, as opposed to a tactics-based approach to communications.  

His presentation focused on three key points: 

  • know your brand
  • empower your brand fans
  • replace or augment market research.

Organizations that have been around as long as P&G have been on the branding treadmill for decades now. They’ve devoted incredible human and monetary resources to creating and promoting their brands. In fact, P&G became the US’s largest advertiser in 2005. Imagine having revenues of $4.61 billion, let alone that kind of money to spend on advertising – it’s rather mind-boggling.

Regardless of where you land on the PR versus advertising spectrum though, it’s important to recognize that traditional advertising accomplishes none of the goals Joosten has outlined. I will contend that all market research is skewed, in one way or another – and I don’t think you need to be a statistical expert to know that instinctively. I’ve done market research myself on a couple of occasions, on the phone and in person. After less than 10 hours you start to realize there’s a particular type of person who consents to participate – with or without inducements – in focus groups and surveys. (They tend to be the same sort of people who hold doors open and who still say ‘excuse me’ before pushing past people at the grocery store.) But all the folks who refuse to answer surveys and are unwilling to be part of focus groups still use soap, wash their clothes, clean their bathtubs – and make purchasing decisions each and every day.

So in order to know your brand, you have to listen not only to the branding experts who’ve created the brand and listed what they hope its attributes will be, you have to listen – and be willing to hear – what your brand really is.

That can sometimes be a painful experience when you’re in a highly competitive market. The former market leader in radios probably doesn’t want to hear the cellphones it’s poured millions into creating and marketing are considered clunky, ugly, expensive, and totally unhip – but when it ends up a distant third in the cellphone manufacturing market, not listening to the message would be a big mistake – as would failing to do some course correction so it can compete on at least one front.

But of the three goals Joosten outlined, perhaps the most revolutionary – and the most necessary –  is the middle one: empower your brand fans. People listen to other people. They listen especially hard to other people they trust. Whether those people are mainstream media (who can at least be trusted to be familiar with the competition), media 2.0 (the bloggers who rarely have anything to gain by waxing enthusiastic about the products they like), or Mrs. McGillicuddy down the block who has three boys all in soccer and has a deeply vested interest in getting grass stains out of clothing, doesn’t matter. And by empowering your brand champions, you can exponentially increase the audience you reach.

How do you empower them? Connect with them. Ask for feedback. Make it easy for them to get in touch with you. Use social media as well as more traditional forms of communication. Think of Twitter, Facebook, and your corporate blog as other versions of the toll-free phone line, and be every bit as human and as genuine in your interactions via social media as your customer service reps are trained to be. And then reap the corporate rewards (including the savings in market research and advertising spend!).

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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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8 Responses to Social media lets you listen to your customers

  1. Nick McGivney says:

    Yes, yes and yes. But engagement at this level is truly terrifying for most clients. The prospect of stuff coming back directly – oftentimes unsolicited stuff for heaven’s sake – well, it’s just not Sears and Roebuck, is it? The choice is limited however, and the limits impand (my new invention: opposite of expand, see?) with each passing month. But listening and understanding will have to be nurtured, and the ones who do it best will pull ahead, I think.

  2. ruthseeley says:

    Hello, Nickster! The world of ‘moving units’ is a bit foreign to me, I’ll confess, since what I do is infinitely customizable and it’s not about volume. But the large corporations that are soon going to cease to exist because they’re convinced they can create markets for totally useless items like cheese in a can that dispenses like shaving foam had better smarten up. Change is inevitable – the sooner you accept that, the happier (and the saner) you’ll be. 😉

  3. James Dickey says:

    Ruth –
    Nice extrapolation from the presentation and article.

    It’s the same point that Andy Sernovitz makes in Word of Mouth Marketing:

    People have discussed products and services for years.
    Smart marketers enable that conversation. The ones willing and able to do that are those with a great product.

    The powerful takeaway (and the effective social media sales approach) is that those executives unwilling to support this type of marketing must not actually have confidence in their product or service. “Of course that can’t be the case for *you*,” the PR person says, pausing…

    Again, thanks for taking the conversation to the next step.

  4. ruthseeley says:

    Thanks, James – as you can see, I managed to edit your comment at your request so it was addressed to me, not Nick. Thinks she might be dangerous now that she knows comments can be edited. Slaps self and says, ethics!

  5. Ruth

    Great post. Agree that marketing is changing and becoming even more consumer centric. Listening as you mentioned is the first step to getting a connection with your customers.
    However, I dont believe it is an either/or approach – market research still has validity to getting closer to your customers.

    I believe the ideal scenario is to:

    1. Listen to consumers in blogosphere/web
    2. Develop hypothesis around the ‘unsolicited’ findings
    3. Test hypothesis ( and key themes) with appropriate, relevant demographic through market research means (albiet more web 2.0 aligned)

    Both unsolicited and solicited consumer information serve different purposes and together can be very powerful.

    Cheers.

  6. ruthseeley says:

    Now the approach you outline makes sense. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. “Imagine having revenues of $4.61 billion, let alone that kind of money to spend on advertising…”

    I’m imagining it right now. Kind of feel like I should be lighting up a cigar while wearing a tophat and monocle.

    I like your reminder towards the end about the power of word of mouth in addition to social media. I’ve found that old-fashioned word of mouth still works wonders for marketing.

  8. ruthseeley says:

    Hey Jonathon. I think we can arrange the top hat, the cigar and the monocle. I could even throw in a white silk scarf if you can afford to rent the tux. Not sure about the $4.61 billion though.

    Yes, how to get folks to talk about you in a good way – that’s the challenge. They don’t call it outreach for nothing, though. Social media embodies for me so many of the things I love about community and stakeholder communications – talking to a whole bunch of different people, being out there on the ground meeting and greeting and listening to what people have to say, dining on little nibbly sandwiches and veggies and dip put together by the women’s auxiliary, making sure people get the information they need – I like it.

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