Robin Hamilton (our very own reference geek) is both annoyed and optimistic and he wants you to know why.

Three years ago I saw Jeremiah Owyang and Ben McConnell speak about new tools becoming available and how the new fangled ‘social media’ and ‘citizen marketers’ were going to change customer advocacy. Forever.

They each spoke of a connected world where genuine peer opinion was still equally or more valid and influential than carefully-crafted PR (including case studies), the difference was that this online opinion would shout louder and have more impact than any marketing we were currently doing.

This stuff would change what we do and how we thought about customer advocates. A seminal moment.

For me this was the first time (other than feedback mechanisms on Amazon and eBay) that I’d truly seen the connection between the ethereal world of the web and the day-to-day existence of the jobbing customer reference professional.

I looked around the room to share the moment with my friends and colleagues and it instantly became clear that the audience was polarized, a roomful of passionate marketing pros (all of which understood the power of enabling satisfied customers to tell their stories) was clearly split into those that would give this the thought it deserved, and those that could (or would) not contemplate the long-term implications of what was being said.

Three years later…I am annoyed (I was going to say frustrated but no, this is very annoying)

  • I am annoyed by the companies that understand the ‘media’ half of the term but choose to ignore the ‘social’. They see this as yet more channels to push the same old content and have no interest in having conversations. Twitter as a narrow-channel replacement for RSS feeds? absolutely! (though that’s what’s going on here).
  • I am annoyed by large and respected analyst houses that still preach that ‘digital’ = ‘social media’ (and should know better)
  • I am annoyed by intelligent marketing pros being measured on spam, the amount of case studies they tweet about, or the amount of facebook, Linked in or twitter noise they make (and accepting this as OK as they ‘have to be there’)
  • I’m annoyed at searching through the twitter hash tags from events as they have become more about ‘who can generate the most noise to raise my profile’ as opposed to ‘I’ve heard something really worth sharing’ (actually I’m annoyed at myself for getting into this race once with an analyst from Forrester. She won but I put his down to having a full-sized keyboard when I only had a PDA…I’ve been practicing and am ready for a rematch :o).
  • Most of all I’m annoyed by the unrealistic expectations (remember the 1% rule) and overall lazy thinking of it all.

Were Jeremiah and Ben wrong? Is this smoke and mirrors? What’s happening here?

I think the root of the issue is in a single simple point: social media enables social networking. They are not the same thing

Someone said to me recently “take the best face2face interactions such as Customer Advisory Boards, events and site visits and work out how you can enhance them using social media tools to create an enhanced form of social networking”.

I think this is a good evolution of existing practices however we really do need to decide how best to engage on an organizational (not marketing intern level).

“They are communicating anyway”, “They are communicating anyway”

There’s no point rolling out Net Promoter if you are not going to use this feedback to change or at least engage with the advocates and detractors and similarly you can use social media monitoring tools such as Radian6 however unless you really, really choose to engage you are left with largely meaningless statistics and I am yet to see anyone convincingly correlate ‘buzz’ to ‘business’.

So here (at last) is the thing:

When making a purchase decision we first look to peers, then check online and thus Google/twitter/facebook/LinkedIn really areyour reputation.
This also means that if you treat customers badly they can tell their stories more easily and more powerfully than ever before and  connect in a virtual network to destroy your reputation, which of course you deserve if you are a lousy company and treat you customers badly.

So if we ignore the ‘pushing content’ social media activities then surely the driver of all advocacy and detraction in the social networking space is customer experience?

Why not transfer most of the marketing budget (including customer reference programme funding) into product design and customer service?

It’s a thought. actually it’s a good thought. It’s certain that if you are doing a lousy job then no amount of marketing spin will compensate for that, at least not for long.

We’ve all been on case study interviews  where their view of the customer experience is completely at odds with that of the Salesperson. It’s an interesting problem to handle but the reality-check is a good thing, a wake-up call for the company.

  • I’m optimistic about the impact of social networking. It’s an always-on wake-up call that when listed to and acted upon can make us  do more of what works for our customers and less of what they hate.
  • I’m optimistic about online communities as extensions of existing great face2face interaction
  • I’m also optimistic about the networking abilities we can all benefit from, personally and professionally that were inconceivable a few years ago.

This is not a Jerry Maguire moment. This is not a memo (mission statement!). I’m not suggesting we all hand back our budgets and insist the money goes into customer service (though I might advocate that 5% of all print or TV advertising goes there).

I’m saying that I’m concerned the confusion between social media and social networking may cause damage to the possibilities that connecting people can bring for our discipline.

I DO think the world has permanently changed for customer reference pros. Who’s coming with me besides…flipper, here?