How much time per employee per day for social media?

Bruce WilsonI recently attended an interesting presentation by Veronica Belmont, a.k.a. @veronica (yes, she’s a Twitter early adopter) who is a celebrity in the online gaming sphere and has over 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

Her presentation was wonderfully succinct. Her (surprisingly) short slide presentation was useful while concise. Which left plenty of time for Q&A, where again she was succinct. For example, despite being on stage with a microphone and license to babble on, she answered several questions with a single word. Words like “yes,” “no,” and “hyper” (the latter being the quality needed for an effective online community manager).

Even so, @veronica says it takes her 4 or 5 hours a day to manage her social media. Of course, this is a major part of her job, and she’s a new media superstar to boot. The average individual doesn’t need to spend so much time on social media (more in a future blog entry). But for customer-centric companies it makes sense to have someone whose job it is to spend plenty of time engaging with customers.

For example, someone recently asked me how Zappos.com can afford to allow its customer service reps to spend virtually unlimited time with each customer (in one instance apparently someone spent 90 minutes just chit chatting with an elderly customer). I laughed and said: Zappos can’t afford not to. Customers will pick up on the vibe customer service reps are giving off. Customer service reps will give off the vibe they are given by their managers…who give off the vibe set by corporate management. Zappos’ vibe is to love the customer, for real.

Let’s face it, customer service reps aren’t professional actors. And even if they were, let’s consider method acting for a minute. I’ve read that Jim Carrey drives people around him crazy by being “in character” for weeks at a time when shooting a film. In other words, its hard to turn good, emotionally genuine acting on and off.

So as I see it, Zappos had a choice. Amazing customer experience: “on” or “off”. They’ve chosen “on,” and their customers have chosen Zappos. Which is part of why Amazon.com bought Zappos a few months back for close to a billion dollars.

[Thanks to the Social Media Club of Seattle for inviting @veronica to speak!]

Private Social Networks Are Taking Off

Bruce WilsonThis afternoon I followed a tweet to a beautiful blog post by Scribnia‘s David Sprinks on Mashable.com. David writes succinctly about (and provides lush screen captures illustrating) six visually appealing examples of how companies are using Ning social networks.

Although I want to add a couple of thoughts of my own about businesses building their own social networks, first a shout-out to David for his piece. His examples include a customer community for Seesmic (one of the leading Twitter client applications); a community for the mothers of US Navy sailors; a community for people who own or are otherwise interested in Saturn automobiles; a community for encouraging women to start their own businesses (sponsored by Martha Stewart); a community of travel bloggers; and a community for holiday bakers who want to exchange cookies (sponsored by Hersheys).

Although some of the same social networking functionality can be delivered by Facebook business pages and Twitter-based conversations, David’s piece makes it clear that there is still plenty of room for niche social networking sites.

I’m especially excited to see companies that have gotten so much traction–and customization–at Ning because about three years ago I helped found a startup focused on building a private label online social networking platform. David’s Ning examples, while beautifully and uniquely branded, are not true private label social networks because they still are hosted with Ning URLs, like xxxxxx.ning.com, and people must have a Ning account to participate. Fully white label solutions do exist now, including Social Go, RealityDigital, and Stribe. While at the moment they lack the name recognition of Ning, they appear to have big customers nonetheless.

Although the startup I helped found ultimately failed to get off the ground, a key insight we achieved is that almost every business has a group of loyal customers who could bond or have already bonded around their contact with that company. Examples we examined included:

  • Neighborhood Starbucks (and other cafe) customers identify with their local “third place” and frequently form friendships with fellow regulars. Special events and offers, like coffee tastings and new merchandise, could be organized and advertised via the social network.
  • Retailers with inspired customer bases like Nordstrom–which already has special invitation-only events during hours they are not usually open to reward extra special customers–can use a social network to allow customers to revel in their pride of relationship with that retailer and spread news and photos of products, events, and specials with their friends and family.
  • Health clubs can offer ways for customers to learn of schedule updates, news, special offers, and (between interested customers) opportunities for customer interaction.
  • Motorcycle sellers (and sellers of other high-affinity products, similar to Saturn) can offer not only company and product news but opportunities for riders to set up rides and other events together.
  • Alumni organizations can offer a dedicated school and classmates connection experience, not filtered through an intermediary like Facebook, Classmates, or LinkedIn and optimize it for the mutual goal of supporting the educational institution itself.

If you haven’t already, once again I recommend checking out David’s post, he really has an eye for web design and it’s worth checking out his post just for the graphics alone. Then think about how your business can leverage this approach to improve customer satisfaction and engagement.

Word of Mouth marketing, now without the Mouth part

Bruce WilsonFor old school marketers, “word of mouth” requires mouths. For the rest of us, not so much.

Last night I enjoyed attending a networking event hosted by a local product design firm specializing in medical equipment. While there I met quite a few friendly folks from materials fabrication companies–sheet metal, plastics, and such. The reactions I evoked after saying that I provide social media marketing for small to medium-sized businesses were telling.

The first fellow I spoke to said “We could never use that social media marketing stuff. We do all our marketing by word of mouth.”

The last guy I talked with said “This would be great for us. We do all our marketing by word of mouth. We just haven’t done anything with it yet.”

This actually fits my business model to a T. Because while there are many high profile examples of companies that are successfully using social media to promote their companies, there are many more who haven’t figured it out and haven’t yet gotten a clue about where to begin.

Companies that do most of their business promotion over the internet (like Amazon) and companies marketing ubiquitous consumer brands (think Coke) by this time have well-developed social media marketing strategies. Like the last guy I talked to, they know that “word of mouth” today includes customers telling their friends — and their friends’ friends — what they like and don’t like using Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other internet connections. These companies are making the most of that kind of “word of mouth” by making it easy for their customers to hear about them regularly and pass on good messages about their products to potential customers.

On the other end of the spectrum, many small to medium sized companies that are not primarily internet-based haven’t come to grips with the power of social media to increase their business. In these financially difficult times, where the low cost of “word of mouth marketing” makes it more attractive than ever, they probably should at least take a look at it. But many think like the first guy I talked to: word of mouth means literally words coming out of mouths. Perhaps they believe thathey can’t connect to their customers on the internet because they don’t sell much on the internet.

Marketing that seemed straightforward in the past, like YellowPages and print ads, is not nearly as focused and flexible as what we have today. Even for businesses that aren’t primarily web-based or global consumer brands, it’s time to understand and consider the “word of mouth” opportunities presented by the rising tide of social media online.