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A message for brands in social media: put people first now more than ever

Occupy Wall St, Brands, Ben and Jerrys_Social Media
Ben and Jerrys support the Occupy Wall St movement

I read a post recently from Frank Eliason. If that name rings a bell for many of you it's because you may remember him as the man behind the Twitter handle @ComcastCares. He has a new position as VP of Social Media for Citibank and you can follow him at @frankeliason

Frank's post was titled Why Social Media Customer Service is a Failure. It is more positive than the title suggests, and he writes "it is an important perspective to consider if we are to build stronger relationships with customers." I agree.

One bullet point that stood out in Frank's post, and one that I agree with when it comes to the social web and brands, is this one: Human connections are against the grain for many businesses, but imperative for social media success.

I spent last Sunday as I have every weekend recently, reading the NY Times, mulling current events and noticing the ever upward tick in societal upheaval. As I read I found myself considering what brands are trying to achieve in reaching people online versus what is actually happening to the lives of those people that brands consider 'users' 'customers' and 'buyers' - no doubt many of whom I now see camping out in protest and marching along the streets of the world's cities. ( A side note: I notice that the number of families living in their cars and tents underneath the I405 freeway by the North office, grows exponentially as time passes..and then the police come by and move them on.)

For anyone not living under the proverbial rock it goes without saying that we are seeing a trend emerging across the globe. People, the world's ordinary citizens who are not normally agitators, are deeply unhappy with the huge gulf between the haves and the have nots. For those citizens of middle eastern countries that took part in the foment known as the Arab Spring, the rallying calls have been for more democratic representation, a release from the pressure of dictatorships, although income inequality and lack of work for a large percent of young people played their part too. In the West, the Occupy Wall Street movement is directing its members ire at financial institutions that brought about the current economic downturn, at least in part through bad mortgage practices, something they were able to achieve due to the financial deregulation and lack of oversight created by a past administration.

The institutions that were bailed out by taxpayer money, mainly banks and large insurance companies that were deemed "too large to fail," have seen their profitability rebound so those cherished bonus checks and large salaries are back to previous levels, if not higher. These institutions are rightly reviled by those who never had skin in the game, who lost their savings, their jobs or their homes. People are incensed that no one was held accountable for the willful gambling with the markets and the mistakes that were made. It is no surprise that accountability and responsibility are sorely lacking amongst the monied on Wall Street.

As much as anyone in the world's governments and institutions try to play this one out as class warfare, it is untrue. The discontent that we are seeing is a reaction to the economic injustice that is so transparent to anyone who cares to look.

The protests are not going to go away in a hurry either. Here's Suze Orman endorsing the OWS protests:

I want to publicly say thank you to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thank you for not accepting the status quo. Thank you for not assuming there is nothing to be done. Thank you for rattling the cages. Much coverage of Occupy Wall Street has cast this as the beginning of something new. That’s only partly true. What I find so encouraging is that Occupy Wall Street’s more important message is that this marks an end point. An end to just shrugging and putting up with the inequity. An end to patiently waiting for government to get its act together and take steps to reduce the pain felt by millions of Americans who are unemployed, the millions more who are underemployed, and the millions more again who worry that if we indeed slip into a double dip recession they will soon become unemployed. An end to letting Washington just continue further down its dysfunctional dark hole without being called out.

People matter even more and the disaffected have now found a unified voice. Brands using social media channels better wake up fast to this reality. Wealth inequality, education cuts, austerity measures at the national and state levels all hurt the middle-class and poor disproportionately. Unemployment, the decline in wages, the fraying of the social fabric and the clear and obvious decline of the middle class are issues that require as much attention as has been recently paid to the environment, clean energy, concerns over global warming and natural gas fracking etc.. Again: People matter.

Somewhere between 14 and 16 million US citizens are currently unemployed, 40% of whom have been jobless for more than 27 months.

Unemployed Americans

Ok, so that's reality. Where do brands in social media fit into this reality? Let's start the conversation.

I believe there's real opportunity here. For years now the social media "experts" have enticed brands with their new-twist-on-PR ministrations, particularly their insistent siren call that goes something like "behave like a person online.." [It's ok to make a note to yourself at this point that includes the words "..excuse me?"] Whatever the Supreme Court may have determined, companies are not people. And nothing makes that point more clear than the fact that individuals and companies have very different motives. [I feel confident that I don't have to expound on that last sentence.]

In light of current social dynamics, by which I mean society not media, if brands truly want to converse with people in social media by "behaving like a person" wouldn't the conversation begin with "how are you doing" or "how are you holding up?" Those two questions are an example of what a conversation between one human to another might consist of after all. But no, the folks behind the brands in social media are not asking those questions because they are not set up to do that. Brands are continuing to advertise their products in social media channels as usual to whatever branch of the market is noticing and still has discretionary funds to spend. The only real conversation occurs whenever there's a customer service issue. Which brings us back to the beginning of this post and Frank Eliason's proposition that 'social media customer service is a failure..'

If you've already read Frank's post you'll have seen two other important bullet points: They are 'It All Starts With Trust and Stories Are the Most Powerful Way to Create and Reinforce Change.' He follows those up with a remark about "change" and what it often means in business social media circles - "..the only changes I have seen are those due to large or threatening groundswells. And in my view, change was only made to silence the noise." In other words, conversations are not taking place, companies just react to bad news from their customers and try and forestall it.

So, does the disintegration of the middle-class and the creation of a 14 million strong, long-term underclass, income inequality, homelessness and cuts in education and social services meet the brand terms of "a threatening groundswell?" I would say it's hard to disagree that they must.

Let's take a look at Frank Eliason's points about Story and Trust in social media.

If we take Facebook, as it's the flagship social media channel, the glaring omission in advertising across the platform is the absence of storytelling. [Here's Part 1 of a 4 part series by Ira Glass on storytelling..] Ironically, Facebook launched an initiative for people to share their stories - aimed at people not brands. As we all must know, Facebook status updates don't tell the whole story although they work well as an ongoing oral history stream. Meanwhile brands seem to be caught up in "the idea of Facebook" trying to act "like people." Take a look at the adidas Originals Facebook page. They have 11,256,240 Likes and 74,145 "talking about this." In a game of numbers that's healthy, right? In the adidas About page you'll find a lot of feel good language about the brand and the promise of "lots of stories around adidas Originals." If you dig in to the wall you won't find those promised stories but you will find some heavy-handed product selling. Not much mention of people. The analogy would be the drunk guy at the party talking about himself loudly while inviting you to "hang out sometime.."

And what about those 11,256,240 Likes anyway? How does that help sales I wonder. The chart below is a 'Facebook Fashion Index' from Stylophane. As you can see it ranks the best performing companies on Facebook in terms of the number of Likes garnered. You'll soon see for yourself that actual engagement from those millions of fans is pretty low. [Amazingly Levis rank number 5 on the index, by doing absolutely nothing!]

Stylophane Facebook Likes chart
Click on the image for the whole list.

Whatever those Likes/Fans mean in actual sales ROI, adidas' profits were off 62% in 2010 but appear to be growing again in 2011 post last year's World Cup. We could make an assumption then that sponsoring the World Cup provided meaningful sales results beyond 2010, and millions of Facebook Fans/Likes provided...awareness?

Meanwhile Ben & Jerry's Facebook wall is far more engaging. It is still product-based of course, and as other brands do they ask you to Fan them, but it feels way less salesy and the notion that they are talking to actual people comes across well in their wall posts, as does the company's culture. You will see in their own Likes that they include Post-riot cleanup: Let's help London for instance, and they post video of how Fair Trade Vanilla sourcing helps Ugandan farmers. And as we now know they are in full support of the Occupy Wall St movement. That clarity of how they "speak" to their core customers on their wall, and the transparency of their brand activism allows them to be considered trustworthy and authentic - something you might want in a new friend.

People matter. The people-powered web has never been a snug fit for brands. Companies have long struggled with the platform, considering it a Meta-TV, or book or newspaper when it was none of those things. Those companies also never understood that their competition online wasn't other brands or agencies, but us. People. We can upload content faster than brands can dream of making it. Perhaps they've come around to understanding the web and its power but I wonder if they really understand the people who populate the platform. Under the current economic conditions they really need to understand their Fans, customers, supporters whatever they call them, and they have to engage with them on a very different level than what they've been used to. It's no use for a company to be aware of a downturn in its sales cycle without understanding that people aren't spending as they did three years ago - on anything.

Some questions:

Is your company using digital strategy to truly "engage" with your core customers? Maybe taking a break from marketing at them and asking them how they are doing? People now understand that large corporations have been hoarding cash borrowed cheaply with government backing, money that was supposed to be used for hiring, but that hasn't happened. Is your company putting profits to good use by supporting causes that help your core customers make ends meet? Or is your company desperately using social web channels just trying to hit sales numbers that are better than Q3 of 2010? If the middle-class in the USA and worldwide continues to shrink, how will you maintain your profits?

It's an important distinction. The right answer will help your company solidify trust amongst your customers and also help you win new admirers when the economy turns around. Now is the time to talk to them and not just "act like a person online."

People are watching.


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