Mining The Social Channel for Customer Gold

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  February 01, 2011

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

The social channel a.k.a. social media appears on first glance to provide a readily-extractable motherlode of information and insights that can help firms retain and build relations with customers and attract new ones. For in the huge volume of conversations: blogs, comments on sites e.g. TripAdvisor et al, Facebook (News - Alert) postings and Tweets are concerns, complaints, experiences and ideas about companies’ products and services, and the companies themselves that are waiting to be mined, assayed, refined and used.

Yet as one spends any time on the social channel knows all too well, going through it is akin to mining in another way; there are an awful lot of tailings to be removed so one can yield a few nuggets of value.

Blogs are often more hype than substance, blog and site responses too frequently border on the unintelligible and the insulting. Facebook conversations and Tweets are typically weighed down with minute details on individuals’ lives.

When there is commercially worth while information it may not be what firms need to know and can use at that time. With the social channel, like any resource, what is there is all that there is: take it, work with it or leave it. There is nothing companies can do to change the composition or the location.

Then there is the issue of whether what is said on the social channel fully and accurately reflects marketplace sentiment. Who actually listens and heeds commenters’ messages? Are the people who use these tools: leaders and followers alike, also sought-after customers, possessing the right income, interests and demographics? Or are the comments and posts instead examples of “empty cans rattle the most?”

The majority of the working population rarely has time during business hours--which are becoming longer as are commute times—to spend much time on the social channel. Stringent corporate Internet access policies and tougher laws that rightly restrict communicating in motion are in or going in place to limit such activities, though their success in doing so is debatable.

The social channel’s anonymity creates challenges for firms to readily find out commenters’ identities and from there to determine their value to their enterprises without arousing their suspicions. The only option is approaching them head-on, invite them to chat, which works only if they agree to reveal who they are.

More ominously, too often the remarks made about firms are unhelpful and worse yet inaccurate, which could harm brand reputation and sales. The anonymity opens the door to concerted guerrilla marketing warfare where commenters would be paid to build up their clients and tear down competitors, with language specially shaped and sharpened to get through the host sites’ screens.

Spam has already infested social channel sites, requiring accurate and continually updating filtering. Suspicious-sounding responses have been sent to blog entries; it takes a careful eye and ear for language to detect them.

The social channel, for all its ability to give consumers a global voice, has limits on influencing buying behavior; which makes it no different than any of the other channels. Customers will, for all their squawking, tolerate mediocre products and services if these marginally perform better for the money compared with the competition (certain airlines, carriers and software firms come to mind…)

Companies that want to tap the social channel should prepare for the hard work ahead. That means investing in top-grade harvesting and analysis software and in social collaboration solutions that draw and engage customers and prospects into mutually productive conversations. That also means setting up channel management processes with which to proactively put out and reactively respond to comments, the key for which is hiring and training media—and it is social media--savvy-staff.

At the same time firms must retain and expand their use of traditional voice of customer means and tools. These include managed customer feedback surveys and interaction speech and screen analytics on calls, e-mails, chats and texts.

Even more important than that though outfits must design, engineer, deliver, price and support their products and services right. For there is no surer means to wealth than that to attract and retain profitable customers: who will then encourage others via the social channel to join them.

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi