Doing business in a social era

In January 2012, the McDonald’s social networking team had an amazing idea. See also: Your online habits could land you in prison

To recognise the “hard-working people” who supply food to the company, it would create two hashtags to accompany videos of the happy food producers: #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories. They would then use Promoted Tweets to push the message. What could go wrong?

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In short, everything. Although McDonald’s sent out only two tweets with the hashtag #McDStories, it was quickly seized upon by the company’s critics, with @PrettyTallerr tweeting “My brother finding a fake finger nail in his fries. #McDStories” and others sharing their thoughts about everything from rats roaming over burger buns to what people would rather eat than McDonald’s food.

According to Rick Wion, McDonald’s social media director, the problems started when they shifted from #MeetTheFarmers to #McDStories. “Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,” Wion told US site GigaOM. “It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.”

The company couldn’t reclaim its hashtag, however, which had quickly taken on a life of its own. Indeed, even today, more than two years later, disgruntled customers use the hashtag #McDStories in posts. So why would any company dare to jump into this potentially dangerous minefield, one that could do your brand more harm than good?

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A social world

The key reason is that we’re all changing how we create, consume and digest information. Whether it’s at home, work or play, we’re engaging with an online world via Facebook, Twitter and any number of rivals. Every day, we generate more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. That’s a staggering amount of information.

The internet has increased our appetite for knowledge and has accelerated data growth, but social media, in particular, has played a key role – around 90% of that data has been generated in the past two years alone, according to IBM. Twitter plays host to 5,700 tweets per second, around 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and Facebook handles 4.5 billion “likes” each day – equating to around 500TB of data in total.

The business world must at the very least keep pace with such change, if not try to stay one step ahead and anticipate future demands and trends. More than 63% of the Western European online population are currently using social networks, and that figure is projected to rise to 70% by 2017.

Giving your customers a voice

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It’s not enough to simply set up a social media presence. Some of the data being shared online includes key information about your company, and by tapping into customer sentiment about your products and services, through the channels they want to use, your business will be seen as approachable, accessible and, more importantly, responsive.

“Those people are having a conversation about you, whether you listen or not,” warns Stuart McRae, executive collaboration evangelist at IBM
“So, do you want to put your hands over your ears or do you want to listen? If you want to listen, do you then ignore the fact that someone’s incredibly unhappy or do you do something about it? That gets you to the engagement section, where you have to start managing those conversations.”

Companies that ignore what customers are saying, and fail to pay them the courtesy of acknowledging their voice will be penalised, analyst firm Gartner has warned.

“The dissatisfaction stemming from failure to respond via social channels can lead to up to a 15% increase in churn rate [the amount of customers lost] for existing customers,” says Carol Rozwell, vice president and analyst at Gartner. “It’s crucial that organisations implement approaches to handling social media now. The effort involved in addressing social media commentary isn’t good cause to ignore relevant comments or solvable issues.”

Businesses should be mindful of three key things when it comes to social interaction with customers externally, according to Rozwell. “It’s important that organisations don’t let a fear of someone saying something bad about them stop them from participating in social media. Second, don’t assume all comments require the same level of attention – develop an appropriate response for the different types of interaction your business faces,” she advises.

“Third, plan for an increase in social commentary and adapt communication practices to cope – this will require changes to job descriptions, performance metrics and business processes.”

The employee factor

Done well, a greater emphasis on social media can empower employees and drive new ideas and new ways of working. Where traditionally a business may have had projects driven from the top, there’s a strong argument that opening up ideas to your entire workforce – no matter how inexperienced – could reap rewards.

When employees are encouraged to come up with and exchange ideas that could be of benefit to the business, rather than feeling competitive and secretive about them, everyone stands to benefit. Employees will feel more motivated and part of a forward-thinking organisation, one that’s innovating and standing out from competitors.

“Younger people come into the workplace – the millennials – and they just ‘get it’. That’s because they’ve lived with the internet from day one. If people weren’t willing to share and be open on the internet, sites such as Facebook simply wouldn’t work,” McRae says.

“Internal competition around whose idea is best just causes things to be kept secret. It’s the wrong attitude towards innovating and improving business processes. Rewarding people for coming up with good ideas is very different from having a set of people compete to come up with the best idea.

“It’s a subtle difference, but one that’s really key to making the right cultural change. Now organisations are starting to think about how to leverage the fact that the people who can make a process better are the ones doing it every day.”

Beware missteps

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Not all social business efforts will result in the benefits that organisations anticipate, Gartner warns. The analyst firm has predicted that between now and 2015, around 80% of social business initiatives won’t bear the fruits expected, due to an overemphasis on pure technology rather than all the necessary elements required for success.

However, Gartner also believes that years from now we won’t be talking about whether businesses should be more social; we’ll take it for granted that they are. It will become second nature.

Gartner has predicted that half of large firms will have Facebook-esque internal social networks by 2016, and that one-third of these platforms will be viewed in the same way as telephone and email communication in terms of core value.

“It’s very hard to be a good, engaged company on external social media, but have your staff work internally in traditional ways. You have to reach out to partners, suppliers and customers as well as employees to make them part of the conversation,” McRae says.

“In the 20th century we had face-to-face, supported by letters, then telephone then email. In the 21st century, relationships and friendships are online, which supports face-to-face meetings, often using the mobile phone. People still want to meet face to face, but a lot of the mechanics of getting there is done online. Social technologies just change the dynamics of the way you can work and amplify what you can do face to face.”

Practical steps

So what happens next? The larger your business, the more complex the procedure becomes – but it boils down to a few key areas. The most important of which is: what do you want to achieve via social media? Is it guerrilla to promote events or sales? Is it to communicate with existing customers? Or find new ones? It’s useful to have specific goals in mind.

You also need to tackle your company’s approach to social media as a whole. For example, do you mind employees taking a few minutes away from their work to check Twitter and Facebook? How often per day? Once you ask yourself and your employees such questions you’ll gain a better insight.

This will help you draw up boundaries. Are employees allowed to comment on issues affecting the business? Or clients, or their fellow employees? Are they tweeting under their own name or one associated with your company?

You also need to work out who has control of the account. While it was entertaining for the rest of the world when tweets about the “mass execution” of more than 60 HMV employees appeared on the company’s official Twitter account, you can imagine how senior executives must have felt when they realised they didn’t know the password. As such, you should probably ensure that social media accounts are associated with company email addresses.

Even if you don’t want to set out a formal policy, with goals and boundaries in mind you can establish your guidelines. It’s then a matter of making sure everyone in your company is aware of them.

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