Voices Carry



  • Social media isn’t a one-way communication but more a direct, two-way conversation with consumers
  • Businesses should listen to find out what their customers are saying before getting into the conversation

Psst! Have you heard the news about…yourself?

Your business might not have a blog or an account on Facebook or Twitter. But it has a presence in social media. Like it or not, people are talking about you online: both your customers and your employees.

The frustrating part, if you’re schooled in traditional public relations, is that you can’t control the conversation. But you can have an influence – if you’re willing to join in. That’s the message from University of Texas alumni Paul Walker and Jeff Hunt, who co-founded the Austin social media consulting firm PulsePoint.

The first step is to forget what you know about marketing – not just old-school advertising, but digital media like websites. “We’ve had a few clients to whom we’ve recommended they not do a website,” says Walker, who advises the UT on social media. “Instead, they should focus on developing great relationships with consumers on Facebook.”

Websites, even “interactive” ones, are built around one-way communication, he explains. “The big difference with social media is that there are more direct, two-way conversations with consumers. Those are greatly facilitated on Facebook and Twitter, because they are built for conversation.”

In 2005, when he started working with Dell, the computer company had an online reputation for bad customer service. Blogger Jeff Jarvis had coined the phrase “Dell Hell,” and it had touched a public nerve. Instead of ignoring or attacking critics, Walker invited them into a social media dialogue:

  • A blog, Direct2Dell, offers a forum for complaints and questions, and a channel for getting answers.
  • A digital suggestion box, IdeaStorm, invites customers to “crowdsource” by proposing new ideas and products. To date, the site has received 16,047 ideas and implemented 467 of them.

Many naysayers were impressed. Two years after his original blogs, Jarvis  praised the company’s efforts in a column titled, “Dell Learns to Listen.”

Not all corporations are so successful with social media. Those who break the unspoken rules of netiquette can do their reputations more harm than good, says Hunt.  “The online community is remarkably efficient at policing bad behavior.” He and Walker offer these tips on how businesses can use Facebook without losing face:

Develop a social media policy. Companies have rules for public communications like earnings reports and press releases. Social media a less formal set of rules, says Hunt, who is also a lecturer in the School of Communication. “You can have an institutional voice and a social voice.”

Such a policy is especially important post-Enron, when public companies have to report quarterly on what they’re doing to mitigate risks. IBM was the first to include social media in its risk strategy. It created policies on how to manage confidential information and where to host blogs and trained employees in the new guidelines.

Integrate your customer contacts
. At companies as diverse as Dell, Delta Airlines, and Gatorade, Walker has helped set up listening command centers. The idea is to bring together communications, marketing, and customer service under one roof.

“It’s helpful to be sitting close to each other, to share ideas and collaborate,” he says. “If an influencer is online, talking about a problem that might be picked up by a customer service rep, the rep might realize, ‘This guy is influential. Maybe I should collaborate with a communications colleague to manage this situation.’”

Find out where your customers are. Building a website is no guarantee that people will come. To reach your customers, you have to seek out where on the Web they’re talking about you. Hunt uses applications like Radian6 to monitor conversations about his clients and to identify the speakers who have the most sway.

You should also understand what Walker calls “digital ecosystems”: the paths people take to search for information online. “Say you think you think you have psoriasis. The first you do is not to run and find all the brands. You’re going to go to Google and start searching on ‘itchy skin’ or ‘psoriasis.’

“In that search, you’re going to see some brand names, but most people avoid those sites. They depend on medical advice sites, where other patients with similar conditions are hanging out. Once they have that information, they can show up to their doctor much better educated about their condition. Then, they might finally start to go to brand sites to learn more about different treatments and the costs of treatments.”

Listen first
. “A blog is about joining a conversation more than starting one,” says Walker. “Twenty thousand people are talking about Dell every day. The hot conversation topic today is next-generation laptops, so Direct2Dell should be talking about it. The trick in social media is being really relevant and valuable to your customer, providing things they want and need.”

The biggest no-no is to jump into a conversation with a marketing pitch. “Initially, you should lurk,” says Hunt. “Gradually inject yourself into the conversation. People don’t want to be sold, but you can make suggestions.”

He recalls how an elderly client compared the online world to a West Texas town, back in the days of party lines. “You assume the operator is listening in on half the phone calls. If you do something bad, everyone knows about it immediately. There’s a lot of truth to that. The world of social media is like going back to a small town.”


About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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