Sizing Up Social's Competitive Advantage

Many companies are just on the brink of building their social presence, while those brands that have already embraced social media with open arms lead by example, blending conversation and customer service to boost loyalty, advocacy, and retention.

Though many companies have embraced social media with open arms, integrating the medium with their marketing and customer service strategies, others are just on the brink of building their social presence. But, as more brands work to offer useful, interesting content across platforms, it's clear to see that nearly all companies understand the advantages of developing a solid social following.

Not long ago, brands treated social media as just another platform for disseminating marketing messages. However, as consumer usage continues to swell, more brands understand that social's conversational undertones will allow them to expand their reach beyond advertising, tapping into the emotional side of the customer relationship. Yet, while more sophisticated companies have already begun to integrate customer service into their social engagement strategies, others are still exploring potential next steps.

With its low barrier to entry, social media holds the power to help companies of all sizes increase engagement levels and strengthen customer relationships. Ideally, those who are just developing their social presence should take some time to educate their employees, examine the competition, and create smaller campaigns that allow marketers to test and measure potential strategies, For instance, as part of its Valentine's Day push to boost brand awareness, the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas took to Twitter to announce its upcoming contest for two.

According to Jeanette Gibson, vice president of customer success and community at HootSuite, the relatively small hotel doesn't have the same budget as its larger counterparts, so the team needed to start at the bottom by monitoring relevant conversations within the hospitality space through keywords and hashtags filtering with the hotel's dashboard technology. Thus, Palms tapped into customer sentiment by publicizing its Valentine's Day trip giveaway, which offered one holiday weekend getaway for two. Couples simply had to submit photos and stories describing how they met for their chance to win. The campaign aimed to bring out the brand's fun-loving personality, fostering engagement by focusing on something close to each consumer's heart and ultimately driving increased followers and bookings. Overall, Palms exceeded its room rate reservation goal by 47 percent, surpassed revenue goals by 67 percent, and gained 2,596 Twitter followers during the campaign's one-month run.

Social media holds great potential, for its open platforms allow consumers and companies to connect in ways never before thought possible, and its real-time nature facilitates genuine conversation and problem resolution. Therefore, companies must embrace this new medium to the fullest extent if they are to reap the benefits and elevate their brand above the competition.

Cultivate Customer Communities

Social media enables individuals to inform and empower one another as they share personal experiences and self-taught solutions without the guidance of the company itself. Thus, many brands are tapping into these self-made communities, allowing consumers to guide each other and share their knowledge with the public. This also allows brands themselves to incorporate consumer feedback into their operations, for social media not only acts as another contact channel, but also an expansive forum for crowdsourced innovation that enhances customer experience and long-term loyalty. Jacob McNulty, director, social enterprise at TeleTech, notes that these forums provide brands with the ability to tap into industry and brand-specific conversations within their own social networks.

"Through social media monitoring and listening, companies can observe conversations that are relevant to their brands, even if they're not necessarily about the brand itself, by focusing on keywords that pertain to their industry," McNulty says. "They can then identify influencers in the space and start to engage with them directly, pulling them into these online communities as they engage with the broader conversation."

But, before companies can actively cultivate customer communities, they must ensure that social media no longer stands alone, as social channels often remain siloed, leading to incomplete interactions and assistance. Instead, organizations must develop an enterprisewide, holistic approach that integrates social media with the company's cross-departmental strategy. Jennifer Waite, product marketing manager at inContact, emphasizes that, while creating Facebook and Twitter accounts may be the correct first step, companies must actually be present in order to engage effectively. Social media offers so much more than marketing opportunities-it enables brands to expand their reach by creating and engaging customer communities of their very own. By embracing the conversational nature of social media, companies can generate dialogue, moving beyond the basic batch-and-blast techniques of yesteryear as they work to strengthen customer relationships and boost loyalty.

Take Responsibility for Mistakes

Because social responsibility has become critical to brand reputation and trust, companies must ensure that, if their social presence becomes compromised, they have the internal processes in place to handle problems with speed and agility. Just as social media allows consumers to offer constructive criticism and feedback, it also prompts others to use said platforms as means for blasting companies with product and service complaints. But, regardless of the issue at hand, companies must always maintain honesty by taking ownership of any problems that arise, actively working to remedy their mistakes.

Brian Rice, director of integrated digital marketing at SAP, emphasizes that companies should implement policies and governance up front so, when and if problems arise, employees will be prepared to respond quickly and with authority. Rice notes that the worst thing any brand can do would be to shift the blame elsewhere or conceal the issue from the public. Honesty has the power to build brand advocates, even in times of crisis. By openly admitting to failure, companies expose their human side to consumers across their networks, while their readiness displays their constant desire to satisfy the customer at every turn. Thus, social crises can transform brand perception, becoming an advantage in disguise.

Embrace Employee Engagement

In an age where we are increasingly less inclined to use phones to make direct calls and conduct conversations, social fans and followers are more likely to engage in social media activity across screens, using the written word to share sentiment. Thus, to fully reach said consumers, companies must implement an omnichannel strategy that leverages social media's constant and consistent two-way dialogue no matter the preferred device.

"Digital media is a rapidly evolving industry which requires you to be adaptable to change, and always be thinking two steps ahead," says James Malins, vice president of cross channel solutions at Adconion Direct. "Customers expect you to be ahead of the trends. The most skilled employees are those who are detail-oriented, can work quickly to meet the real-time expectations of social media users, and be highly strategic at the same time to see the bigger picture. An incredible level of trust with those employees managing your social media is also essential, as they are, in essence, controlling the voice of your brand in a very dynamic media environment."

Waite notes that trust stands at the heart of successful social strategy, for employees will have great power in the way they portray the company across networks. Marketers must take the time to get to know the personality of the person in charge of the brand's social presence and build trust, for if that trust is lacking, it will be difficult to allow this person into the public arena. Lay out an approval process and teach employees the proper way to respond to varying types of inquiries. Present these representatives with an unyielding support system and train them to be knowledgeable in terms of brand expectation.

For brands in search of those with the necessary social skills, the answer may lie within. Often times, companies need only look to their existing teams to identify the most social or outgoing person within the ranks and teach them how to use various social media tools. "We've actually found that, although Gen X and Y tend to adopt social business readily, late Boomers hesitate at first, but tend to get more engagement than their more junior colleagues," says Joanna Belbey, social media and compliance specialist at Actiance. "Why? They understand how to relate to people, enjoy having conversations, and quickly see the benefits of social media as just another tool to stay close to customers." Therefore, businesses must look inward, for those who understand the brand's voice are typically employees who've been with the company for years.

Ultimately, social media offers companies new opportunities to strengthen engagement both internally and externally, bringing both customer and employee relationships to the next level. Businesses that fully embrace these evolving social tools will develop ways to extend loyalty across the board, making theirs the brand to beat.