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Why Social Media is insufficient if you want to truly ‘engage’ with customers

By Saeed Khan

It’s interesting to step back from time to time and reflect on how we work and communicate with coworkers, friends, customers and others.

Of course, Social Media is currently all the rage. Companies left, right and center have Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Tweetchat’s abound, companies are building “online communities” to capture the “voice of the customer”. They encourage their own employees to be active and connect online in those forums as well.

There’s a lot of talk about Social Product Management (whatever that is :-)) or at minimum, Product Managers leveraging Social Media for to better understand customer or market needs.

And of course there are the metrics. There are many, many social media measurement and analytics companies that can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about things like engagement, interactions, conversions, activities, mentions, loyalty, virality, sentiment, buzz, behaviour, authority, watchers, followers, visitors, lurkers etc. etc. displayed in vivid colour on dashboards galore.

But what does it all mean? What are we really trying to achieve via Social Media?

In my post Devil’s Dictionary for High Tech, I somewhat sarcastically defined Social Media as:

Social Media: n. An electronic communication medium aimed at “connecting” people with each other while simultaneously minimizing actual human contact.

Little did I realize that my sarcastic definition was in fact quite accurate. Online, interactive media do let us communicate with each other in direct and open ways, and the openness and public accessibility of the communication does change the nature of the communication to a certain extent, but does any of it really “connect” and “engage” people in more than superficial ways?

Are cookie-cutter interactions in any way meaningful?

Are people who “Like” or Retweet or +1 something they see on the Web, doing so because it really impacted them in a meaningful way, or simply because they found it cute, funny, somewhat interesting etc? Does it matter why, or is accumulating large numbers of “Likes” or other Social Media mentions  simply a way for the publishers to further broadcast their message while collecting some data on their readers or users?

Seth Godin is a pretty well known personality on the Web and his blog is quite popular. But a rather brief (and quite basic) post by him, about the difference between Managers and Leaders received over 1000 reTweets, over 2000 Likes and over 200 Google +1s. Those are high numbers, even for Seth! Who are those hundreds and thousands of people who chose to click the little Social Media buttons on his site, and crank up the numbers? Well, Facebook, Twitter and Google know. Does Seth? I doubt it. Does he want or need to know? I doubt it.

And were all those people actively telling all those in their Social Networks that this post by Seth was a must read? Not really. So were they engaged readers? Who knows?  Well, perhaps Google, Twitter and Facebook know to a certain extent,  but so what?  In the end, all of the websites, blogs, applications and services are simply (weak) proxies for real communication between individuals or small groups.

Not everyone can access Social Media

Another point to keep in mind, particularly for B2B or enterprise customers, is that people may not have access to Social Media while at work. Many companies block sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc. during the workday. Some companies even block Gmail/Hotmail and similar personal email sites. And while those people can access all of these sites from home, many won’t. i.e. are they going to spend their personal time on work related Social Network sites?

I’ve had customers tell me that even if they weren’t blocked, during the day, they don’t time to spend online on those sites. When they go online at work, it’s for a specific task — i.e. lookup technical information, contact customer support etc. Online forums, feature ranking sites etc. are very low on the priority list. Conversely, the value of face-to-face meetings or attending user groups is that the time is formally blocked off for those activities and they can participate in deeper discussions or group round tables etc.

Years ago, I used to leverage user groups extensively to do detailed customer feature request and feedback surveys. The response rate was amazing — 70% response from user group attendees to a detailed (8+ page) survey. Why? Because I had a captive audience? Well yes, but more importantly because not only had they allocated the time in the meeting to fill out the survey, but we were very diligent about analyzing the results and providing feedback on product decisions at future user group meetings. i.e. There was real value to them in spending time on the surveys
(their input helped drive product decisions) and they had time to spend! 🙂

Eventually the surveys went online. Why? To broaden the reach to beyond people who attended user group meetings. The result — response rate dropped to under 5% — typical for online surveys — and the quality of responses fell significantly as well. Who wants to fill out complex online surveys? And the group dynamic that was present at the user groups — the ability to ask questions, to discuss items with others and clearly see how you were part of a larger group activity — were lost. i.e. the actual social aspect of the process disappeared when the survey was put online.

It’s about building trust between people

Last week I wrote a post entitled Can anything really replace a good face-t0-face customer meeting? It had been a while since I had some quality “facetime” with customers so it refreshed my memory of the value in those meetings. Ironically, that post got a lot of tweets/reTweets and some good comments. 🙂 But, most people seemed to be in agreement that even in our increasingly “connected” digital age, pressing the flesh and sitting across the table (vs. across the web) from someone had few real substitutes.

Engagement is about building trust. Trust is the basis of all lasting relationships. Without trust, your customer relationship lasts only as long as your most recent interaction. Many years ago, a customer told me that even though he was a long time customer and had acted as a reference account to help the company convince other customers to buy the product, the only time he received any proactive communication from the company was to get payment for his annual maintenance and support renewal.  Ouch!

Meeting and dealing with people on a personal — yes, human — level is fundamental in societies and is deeply ingrained in cultures around the world. Sharing meals and sharing personal stories (vs. sharing statuses) are key aspects of building trust and relationships. Putting a face to a name (or email address or Twitter handle or phone number) brings us closer to that person.

If you want to truly engage with customers or others and build trust with them, put aside the cookie-cutter social media interactions. Meet customers face to face. Visit them onsite or hold regional user groups or customer days, and listen to them, have lunch with them  and build some lasting bonds. Once those bonds are built, they will be invaluable going forward. I still maintain relationships with some customers I met a decade ago, at a previous company, and I didn’t need any social media to build or maintain them.

If face-to-face meetings are not possible, pick up the phone and call the customers, or email them or direct message them on Twitter and use that as the first step in a real conversation with them. Hopefully it’s the start of an evolving relationship of some kind. If you have nothing or little to say, were they  ever engaged in any way to begin with, no matter now many Likes or reTweets they made?


P.S. Yes, after all, this asking people to retweet this does seem rather ironic, if not hypocritical. But if you really want to engage with me, leave a comment and I’ll definitely email you back. 🙂

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