Two Sides of Social Media

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  February 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

There has been an incredible volume of discussion about the role of social media in the business world, it’s hardly surprising one can’t find a common answer to the question. The one consistent response, though, is that social media should have a role.

And indeed, in many organizations, it already does. 

If you follow Twitter feeds of any of the businesses with which you are associated or in which you have some level of interest, you know many of them tweet on a regular basis, pushing out valuable information on a regular basis – some weekly, some daily, and many several times each day. For them, social media is an easy, yet effective way to disseminate information on products and activities.

Indeed, as a member of the media, I’ve found social media a great way to keep up with many of the vendors in the communications space. In fact, we, at TMC, found social media a highly effective tool for communicating with our various constituencies, notably throughout ITEXPO (News - Alert) East, giant Twitter boards displayed live feeds of all Twitter activity related to the event.

But, as effective a tool as it is, such outbound uses of social media are only part of the picture – the marketing piece.

The other element, and the one which most businesses have yet to fully grasp, is the inbound side.

As much as marketing departments are leveraging social media to deliver information to client and prospects, the larger social media user group is that which provides feedback and commentary on products and services, particularly those that comprise an existing customer base.

In speaking with a number of contact center technology vendors recently, they all agree the challenge is not deciding IF social media has a role in the contact center environment, but WHAT that role should be and HOW it should be integrated into the environment.

Much of the difficulty lies in understanding sentiment and, more specifically, the depth and the potential impact of that sentiment.

First, it’s important to understand that, while many social media users do post positive feedback, human nature is such that customers are much more likely to post to social media sites when they are dissatisfied with a product or service. In that group, there are at least two distinct segments: those who are genuinely unhappy and are determined to proliferate negative (though often constructive) commentary, and those who post in a fit of anger that quickly subsides and is forgotten.

Which group is a more credible source of feedback? Ideally, both.

But, for better or worse, there is another significant factor in play when determining which interactions should require more immediate response – or any response at all – and it requires some understanding of the structure of social media. Two users can post similar comments on social media sites. Using Twitter as an example, one might have 63 followers, and the other 1,812. On the surface, it might seem intuitive that the user with 1,812 followers will likely have the greater potential impact, that may or may not be true.

Indeed, the user with more followers has a wider immediate reach, what complicates the matter significantly is who those followers are, and what their respective social media communities consist of. All it takes is one connection to a Lady Gaga or Justin Beiber (currently the highest ranking Twitter users in terms of followers), and a tweet can instantly end up in front of millions.

To complicate matters further, in addition to followers, the profile of the individual user can also play a role. For instance, it stands to reason the social media user from Microsoft (News - Alert) is likely to be picked up by any number of additional feeds or sources, increasing the reach of a single update, not because of who he or she is, but because of a relationship with a known power in the tech world.

These examples merely scratch the surface of the complexity of social media and its role as an inbound medium. It is easy to quickly suggest that the user with a larger group of friends or followers should be addressed first. But the inherent complexity of social networks makes that determination a very shallow and highly naïve one.

Certainly, it is critical to understand who the influencers are within a customer base, and to focus on them – particularly with outbound campaigns. But, understanding the potential impact of individual social media interactions and how to effectively address them is what has, thus far, stood in the way widespread inbound social media strategies.

What is certain is that social media is a force to be reckoned with. What is uncertain is what the best strategies are. Should it entail one-to-one interaction? Or is the best strategy to simply follow general trends, giving less weight to individual interactions? After all, no business wants to become known for openly ranking its customers based on the number of Facebook (News - Alert) friends they have.

Of course, responding to social media also requires a level of capital investment, in both technology and staffing, adding yet another wrinkle. So, what’s the answer? That is yet to be determined. But, what is certain, as sure as social media as an outbound marketing tool is reasonably easy to leverage, harnessing its power as an inbound medium is no less complex than understanding the human thought process, which is why there is such a preponderance of discussion about it with little real progress.

Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Editorial Director of TMC, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to 2,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi