Social media must be more than skin deep

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I had a bad brand experience this week.

A trendy online retailer with the tagline “Europe’s largest provider of high quality repro designer furniture” sold me some stuff that never arrived – and is clearly never going to arrive.

I came to this realisation while on the phone to a man called Anthony who apologised for delays at the warehouse. After 20 weeks? What a ridiculously poor excuse I thought (or words to that effect). I wondered if anyone else had been given similar excuses…so I Googled the company. And my search query returned page after page of customer “reviews” talking of lost deposits, unpaid refunds, even upheld county court judgements.

Unfortunately I didn’t see these comments prior to parting with my cash. I only saw the things “Europe’s largest provider of repro designer furniture” wanted me to see. The customer reviews on the website are glowing. They have had hundreds of pins on Pinterest; tens of thousands of views on Youtube. The website is beautiful, super slick and easy to use – oh, and very easy to pay.

But look a little closer, scratch below the surface, and it’s all a little like one of those stage doors that opens up into nowhere. It’s easy to say in retrospect, but I should have seen the warning signs. And there were plenty of them:

1. No corporate Facebook or Twitter profile. Yes, there were Facebook and Twitter buttons on the home page leading to “like this” and “tweet this” but, I repeat, no Facebook Page. Strange for a trendy consumer retailer.

2. All comments disabled on Youtube and Vimeo posts.

3. A Pinterest account (of course – great for retro furniture porn), but no mention or link to Pinterest from the main website. Pinterest comments are possible – but then they’re equally easy to delete.

4. Lots of apparent user activity on the blog with competitions and apparent user-generated content – all comments disabled.

5. Photos of the smiling customer service team and “employees of the month” who all look strangely like professional twenty-something paid models.

What’s interesting is that at first glance, this is a company that appears to do the “social” side of things really well: visual flair and engaging, relevant blog content; slickly-produced videos that champion customer service and lively customer engagement through competitions and product reviews. But scrape through the veneer and there’s nothing. No substance. All fur coat and no knickers.

Which leads me to my point: don’t waste time and resources on having an excellent brand message, when your brand experience remains appalling. This is putting the cart before the horse. Focus on the horse, the cart will follow.

Ok, so the particular case I’ve cited may be an extreme example, but think about it for a moment: social is like a stick of rock. It should go right through an organisation, whichever way you slice it. Social is not “just” marketing. It’s not icing on the cake. It needs to be the heart and soul of the business.

The message here is loud and clear: if you’re not doing “joined-up” social media, you might as well not bother. And if you’re doing social media with no decent customer service to back it up, you need to re-think your priorities.

While we’re at it, think about all those other organisational functions, such as sales, production, R&D and human resources. All of these could benefit from a little bit of “social” thinking. Social is the term given to organisations that genuinely put people at the heart of they do: not just customers but all stakeholders – employees, suppliers, local people – anyone affected by the organisation’s activities. Collaboration, responsiveness, accountability and transparency are key.

Examples of good practice come from companies like IBM, for developing and sharing its social selling technique. Body Shop, the original exponent of cause-related marketing, for building a business on ethical trade. Burberry, for engaging customers and employees together through its own social network. And games company Activision (makers of Call of Duty), for recruiting testers from its fanbase.

Why must we integrate social? Because online reputation is now a digital asset. Reputation capital is increasingly important. What people say online about your brand – from products and customer service through to corporate behaviour, social responsibility and your general code of conduct will be more important than what you say about your brand on your website.

Companies who aren’t joined up in social terms will fall by the wayside. Social media that leads to nowhere will collapse. Facebook buttons that ask you to “like this” with no back channel and Youtube clips with comments disabled will be universally recognised not just as bad business practice but positively dodgy: the equivalent of a business associate who won’t look you in the eye or return a handshake. Bad products and bad customer service will become less viable. And “Europe’s largest provider of high quality repro designer furniture” may well cease to exist.

Photo: Michael Shane

Note: This is a re-blog of my guest post for Our Social Times, previewing my panel on social engagement at The Social Media Marketing Conference in London on 24 October

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