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Social Media and Your Customers: Changing the Game

At Frost & Sullivan's annual Growth, Leadership and Innovation conference this week, I moderated a session on the role of social media in customer relationship management. Several key points came out of the discussion; here are a few of the highlights:

* Social media is changing the very nature of the customer relationship. Advertising has always been a one-way street, and even the best ads (think Apple's 1984, or Mean Joe Greene's Coke, or Nike's Be Like Mike campaigns) couldn't avoid the fact that there was the company, and there were its customers, and the two would only meet at the cash register (or, occasionally, at the focus group). Now, thanks to social media, companies and their customers are blurring the lines between sales and supplier.

* With all that interaction, how do you maintain control of your brand? You don't, and let's face it--you never really did. Your brand is what people think it is, based largely on the experiences of the broader culture, perhaps as much as their own. iPhones still make lousy phone calls, but it doesn’t matter--the brand has a reputation for cool design and useful apps, and that's what people want. Before social media, the idea of what a brand stood for was largely created by the company and its ad agency, but the extent to which that image stuck was a reflection on the culture at large. The same is true today--only when it comes to weighing in, that culture moves at the speed of tweets.

* Resources are key--and so is response. When it comes to social media, customers expect a response--and fast. To successfully leverage social media, you must not only give someone the job of overseeing those efforts (and please, don’t make this person an intern), you must involve subject-matter experts and other knowledgeable people throughout the organization. By giving more people a role to play, you build a bigger and more complete community.

* Authenticity matters. Fans of Mad Men know that Madison Avenue is all about creating mystique, and that that image was, and still is, often based on a fiction--or at least a dream. With social media, people are looking for the truth. In her presentation on Kodak’s use of social media, Lauren Coberly, Director of Worldwide Marketing, noted that when she sees people tweeting about whether they should buy a Kodak product or a competitor’s, she doesn't send them a $20 coupon for the Kodak device. She sends them a link to five or six side-by-side reviews, not all of which completely favor Kodak.

* Advocates are your new best friends. We've always had trendsetters, but never have those individuals had more reach. One person with thousands of followers can have more impact than a pricy media campaign. New technology is making it easier to assess who those thought-leaders are; what you do to cultivate them is up to you, but see "authenticity," above.

* Data management is more important than ever. As important as people are to the social media experience, you’ll need to use technology to monitor the twitterverse (used here to also represent Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, That's the only way you'll be able to stay on top of what people are saying about your company and its products—and the only way you'll know how and when to respond.