We all know what social media is, right? At a personal level it’s a way of connecting with our friends, family and those with whom we share an interest. And at a corporate level, it’s a tool of the marketing department to boost customer acquisition and retention and – if you’re a really advanced company – provide customer support.
Social media is, fundamentally a communication tool, and attributing it to one part of your organisation is like assigning responsibility for making phone calls to a single department. At least that’s the thesis of many of the leading thinkers in the emerging field that’s being called “social business”.
At a Like Minds immersive event during Social Media Week London earlier this year, JP Rangaswami, chief scientist at Salesforce.com and a respected writer and thinker on social media and the internet pointed out that the opposite of a social business was an anti-social business, one so lost in command-and-control that it fears the consequence of breaking down the barriers between company and customer. But that’s what social media does. It makes communication easier. It makes the walls more porous.
Rangaswami’s point was that up until now, contact points with customers could only be captured once they’d occurred. Now, you can understand what and how they’re feeling about you and what you provide. At the simplest level, that’s social media monitoring – watching for mentions of your brand across social media, and acting upon the information that gives you. And at it’s most fundamental it breaks down the barriers between information and communication, because both are happening in ways that make them visible to others. Hierarchical command chains with need-to-know information become the exception rather than the rule.
That’s not to say that all areas of business need to let go of rigorous structure and organisation – only a fool would suggest that this was appropriate for aircraft maintenance, for example. And very genuine security concerns mean that no airline will be making everything public. But, like the telephone, social media can be used internally within a company, too.
“Social” is a loaded word. For too many it’s associated with social life, rather than business. That’s one of the reasons that it’s so easy to see social media as a simply a marketing tool for engaging with your customers socially. Another compelling and pervasive reason for pigeonholing social media is the growing industry devoted to helping you see the world that way – so they can sell you marketing products and services. That clash was evident during Social Media Week, as those events that assumed social media was a marketing-owned disciple sat uneasily side-by-side with those were thinking about – and sharing examples of – social media catalysed business transformation.
Euan Semple, a consultant who used to work at the BBC and author of “Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do”, labelled this the “thingification of social media”. He argued – persuasively – that by dumbing down and simplifying social media to the point where it could be sold as an off-the-shelf marketing package, people could make money from it, and executives could be seen doing something about it, but at the cost of the wider benefits business should be able to reap.
For a business as utterly rooted in the passenger experience as air-travel, where keeping people happy, comfortable and occupied in the air is a critical part of the success of their primary mission – to move people from point “a” to point “b” – this should be second nature. For all its heavy reliance on technology, from the moment the first flight attendant stepped on an aircraft, the air travel industry has acknowledged that it is a social – and often aspirational – business.
And it hasn’t been backwards in adopting innovative ideas in a customer-facing way. The industry is throwing up some credible experiments in using social media to enhance the customer experience. Dutch carrier KLM has been testing a programme that allows people to use their social media profiles to find interesting people to sit next to on a flight. The “Meet and Seat” programme allows users connect with their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, and see the profiles of other participating users who have selected their seats.
SAY HELLO TO YOUR NEIGHBOUR
The use of LinkedIn is canny; different industries have different social profiles and some groups of business people – the commercial real estate industry – like to keep very clear distinctions between personal and professional networking. Programmes like this have to reach the widest possible base of travellers to be successful: if nobody else is using Meet and Seat, it’s a bit pointless for you. That’s also a compelling reason for using existing networks, rather than trying to build your own. It presents people with something they’re familiar with and already using, rather that forcing them through a laborious registration process they’ll never bother with. That reduced friction is critical to making this work.
It’s a timely move, as there are already start-ups playing in this space. SATISFLY, for example, offers to choose the most compatible seat neighbours for passengers. Separately, Planely, launched in 2010, uses the travel networking site TripIt to match the flights.
Airlines do have one competitive advantage here: the chances are that their customers are already managing their bookings online on the company’s site. Adding the business matching to that process creates considerably less friction than going to a third party site, accurately matching the flight and then hoping that someone else relevant has bothered to do the same thing. As ever, critical mass of participants is critical to social media success – it’s the point where the network effect – the idea that the value of a network grows exponentially with the number of participants – triggers and creates a more useful experience for all involved.
Since KLM’s Meet and Seat was announced, Planely have been broadcasting their willingness to partner with other airlines to provide the same service. This is a form of customer service, a function that finds much more direct expression when people have complaints to make. The most cursory of glances at any airline Twitter account will give you a glimpse into how pervasive this issue is. When customers are having a bad time, they will complain about you on Twitter. And they hope for resolution.
Managing these social customer support situations is becoming a significant field in its own right. We Are Social held a conference on the topic in London back in March – and the overwhelming message from social media customer support experts present, from telecoms companies to utilities, is that you need equally good networking facilities within the company to find and involve the right people to resolve the problem if you’re going to get the maximal benefit both in customer satisfaction and reputation boost from these opportunities.
Indeed, if you monitor the accounts of airline and airports, you can start to see a network already emerging, with some issues being handed off from airline customer support teams to their airport equivalents seamlessly – and publically. That sort of public co-operation goes a long way to reassuring aggravated passengers – and their watching friends and contacts. How much more powerful would it be if it extended internally as well?
However, the most passionate speaker at the event came in over the internet from the US. Frank Eliason is regarded as one of the founding fathers of social media customer support through his work on the @comcastcare Twitter account. And he did not have a comforting message for the attendees:
“The current model of social service is that if you shout loud enough, you get help. That’s a great message to send,” he said. ”What you see in social media is just your culture. If you want to win in social media, you need to fix the culture. If the top doesn’t want to fix it, you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
Eliason now works for Citibank. When the finance sector are starting to take social customer service seriously, a sector not known for its altruism, then every for of big business should sit up and take notice. And he’s saying you need top-down buy in from the C-suite executives – and you need an internal social culture that needs to match the external image you want to portray.
There’s a simple rule that underlies this: as within, so without.
And that’s why those marketing-focused external initiatives are never going to be enough. We know that the industry is already using social media externally. Well, what of the interior of the company? How social has this become? Some airlines are already using it. JetBlue Airways, in parallel with its extensive external social media use, has been using social media around its training centre, JetBlue University, since 2007.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
There are abundant tools to facilitate this. For example, Yammer and Saleforce’s Chatter provide an internal version of Twitter limited only to those who work within the organisation. That allows the whole company real-time access to the thought, work and questions that its disparate parts are involved with. Finally, the communications problems that often lie between silos in a big company can be broken down as communication happens person-to-person – and publically, too. Others can learn from the discussion in a way that knowledge locked away in a chain of e-mail discussion can never provide.
There’s business impetus. There are tools to facilitate it. And there’s a social impetus, too. We have a generation entering then workforce for whom the Facebook message is a more natural form of communication, and who have a better understanding of what’s for public consumptions, what’s for the consumption of a select group of people, and what should be kept between individuals. Facebook has been training them to do this for five years, and you have the opportunity to exploit this by providing them with internal social tools.
There have been several buzzwords associated with the idea. Alan Patrick of the consultancy Broadsight points out that the term has evolved from “Enterprise 2.0” to “Social Business” over the last couple of years. He has a proposal to push that idea further:
“Well, in our view what has really changed underneath all this is the sheer number of people using the online ecosystem – social and otherwise – far more heavily to research, to buy, and to get service,” he said in a recent blog post. “Thus there is a reason the ‘buzzword’ has moved on from Enterprise 2.0, but in my opinion there is now a risk the ‘Social’ bit is being seen as the The New Big Thing, rather than a component of what is still an end to end infrastructure, i.e. it is still just a part of an end to end value delivery chain, and it is only as good as the weakest link. I therefore propose the term ‘Social Enterprise 2.0’ to remind us that it is just a component, and that it won’t work properly unless it is looked at systemically.”
Patrick drives to the heart of what’s actually at play here. For all the fluffiness of “social” as a concept, business is inherently social. It is transacted between human beings in discussion.
And, actually this is very far from a new concept. Back in 1999, four cutting edge thinkers of their day produced 95 theses in what they called the Cluetrain Manifesto, many of which seem eerily prescient from today’s standpoint.
The rather quirky name stems from a quote from a Fortune 500 company veteran, remarking on their failing employer: “The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.”
The particular clue that this manifesto delivers is that the networks the internet facilitates – we were probably over half a decade before the coining of the phrase “social media” when this book was written – would change the way industry operates. A single paragraph sums it up:
A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.
A social business is one that harnesses social media – the tools that allow people to use the network of the Internet easily – to make the company faster and quicker, and possibly quick enough to keep changes with the marketplace. Marketing is important, and social media marketing is part of all companies’ future. But that’s just one aspect of a bigger game.
There are many things to play for here: a more efficient and connected company that shares information more easily, and acts on it better, plus a happier and more engaged workforce. And a customer, who when making a buying decision, opts for the company that has given him or her a good experience online – and offline.