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Brands for a social age

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In conversation with Jeremiah Owyang

I had the pleasure of meeting Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) last week, partner at social business and technology advisory firm Altimeter. I’ve always been a big fan of Jeremiah’s work, so it was a real privilege to hear some of his thoughts on the future of social business and technology. It’s fair to say that when we launched Headstream in 2006 it was the forward thinking from people like Jeremiah that helped support our idea that social was going to be big! Here are five key-points I took away:

Open will beat closed

The business models that will thrive are those which “work with the internet rather than against it”. Jeremiah believes that “open will win” and cited as an example Altimeter itself, which makes all its research openly available, compared to other research firms that charge for access. He sees Altimeter’s  business model, which gains its revenue from follow-on advisory fees, as more sustainable than the paid-for content model.

“Make the market your marketing department”

By adopting an ‘open’ business model, distributing content widely, and providing individuals with the tools to link back to your content, the entire market can become your marketing department. A business like GiffGaff is a good example of a company where the customers are working for it in this way. (GiffGaff ranked highly in Headstream’s Social Brands 100 listing, published in March)

URLs will go away

As we enter the era of the social web i.e. an internet built around people rather than machines, the traditional architecture of the internet will change radically. Jeremiah sees a future where “corporate web pages go away, URLs go away, search as we know it goes away. We will know so much about customers that we won’t need those things. Data will be used so well that we can predict and anticipate what the market wants.”

Europe vs. the U.S

Jeremiah had two observations. First, Europe is 24 months behind the U.S. when it comes to adopting social business practices, and second, Europeans are much more decorous when it comes to conversations on Twitter, in the U.S. the Twitter ’noise’ is much greater!

Teaching people to shout

If you respond to unhappy customers on Twitter without a co-ordinated and in-depth social CRM strategy in place, you are simply “teaching them to shout at you some more”. Only those companies that are prepared to introduce a service culture throughout the organization e.g. Zappos, will be able to handle customers successfully. Jeremiah is wary of any company that says it wants to undertake social CRM if the executives aren’t prepared to get personally involved.

These are a few highlights from a wide-ranging and excellent conversation over a lunch organized by Neville Hobson @jangles, and supported by Dell’s Kerry Bridge @kerryatdell. Many thanks to them for making it happen, and to the other guests @sheldrake, @benjaminellis, @jas, @abigailh and @sophiebr, who made it such a great conversation. Lovely photo here.

Was your brand born social?

To misquote the Bard: “Some Brands are born social, some achieve socialness, and some have social thrust upon ‘em”.

Following the launch of our Social Brands 100 report last week, we’ve been thinking that this famous quote has some resonance with our ranked brands.

Born social.

One of the surprise Top Five entries for some commentators is the crowd-sourced mobile operator, giffgaff. This innovative business has been making waves in the mobile space since its launch in November 2009. Conceived from the outset as a social business, where its customers can gain rewards by providing customer service and marketing support, this is one business that was ‘born’ with social principles at its core. Indeed the business model was refined through crowd sourcing the question ‘what would you want from a mobile network run by you?’.

Another interesting example is Innocent Drinks. Interestingly, the fast growing FMCG brand, launched in 1999, pre-dates the explosion of mass social behaviour on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

But, according to Ted Hunt, in charge of digital engagement at Innocent from 2006 to 2010, the company already had social principles at its heart. His job was simply to tell this story through social channels, not to transform the business for social. Evidence that true social engagement is more about behaviour and content, not technology and platforms?

Achieving socialness.

This transformative state is the most common that our ranked brands find themselves in. A good example is the retail bank, First Direct.

Launched as the first ‘telephone bank’ 25 years ago, it’s always been an innovator.  In the last few years the Leeds based company has proved its agility once again as it develops social behaviours, and strategies. It features as the only financial services company in the Social Brands 100 thanks to its social media newsroom, i-Phone app, Little Black Book and Talking Point initiatives.

Other notable ‘achievers’ are the BBC, Ford, Burberry, Sky and BT Care. All these brands are introducing effective social principles into the way their organizations work, and rightly being recognized for it.

Social thrust upon them.

This is the most interesting group. A collection of well-known brands that have been pushed into adopting social behaviours, and business models, after being hit by a social reputation crisis.

Dell (ranked #1), Domino’s Pizza (ranked #26), Eurostar (ranked #36), Virgin Atlantic (ranked #37) have all suffered from high profile crises that were either caused, or exacerbated, by social media.

To their credit they have all responded positively. Dell has famously put active listening of conversations around its brand at the very heart of its business model. Domino’s Pizza took the opportunity of its staff induced crisis, to proactively engage with its customers to reinvent the chain’s whole food offering. Eurostar has gone on the record to say that the stranded trains crisis of late 2009 prompted the transformation of its customer service and Twitter profile. Virgin Atlantic has taken positive steps in social engagement after getting stung by staff comments on social platforms in 2008.

These high profile corporate car crashes act as a lesson to all brands that have yet to consider how they will evolve their brands, and transform their businesses, for social.

So, if you’re one of those ‘pre-social’ brands thinking about how they will adapt for the new rules of a connected world, please don’t wait for a crisis to ‘thrust’ you in to it!

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Want to make more money? Have a crisis

It was really fascinating to read today’s results news from Domino’s Pizza. The company is attributing a significant part of its uplift in online sales to social media activity, and innovations like its Foursquare loyalty scheme.

But those of us with slightly longer memories will recall that Domino’s was in the news for social media activity of a different sort in only April last year when two employees went rogue on YouTube. The company dealt with the crisis well, and showed  that it knew how to have its voice heard in the ensuing conversation. It’s clearly stepped up a gear since then, and is now seeing the benefits of proactive engagement with active social communities, not least to the bottom line.

Seems to me that it’s Dell Hell all over again. Get battered in social media, take remedial action, have your eyes opened to the power of the crowd, start earning the right to be part of the conversation and then see the benefits to our company’s performance. In Dell’s case at least $3 mln worth of value. 

So, dear CEO,  forget those expensive management consultants, to boost profitability enjoy a social reputation crisis instead.

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Social Reputation – favourite case studies

People often ask for examples of social reputation attacks online. I’ve summarised five of my favourites in this brief deck, and I plan to update from time to time. Enjoy!

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10 tips for reputation management in the social age

1. Update your current crisis plan    
Social media usage is increasing rapidly. The number of people using social media as a platform to complain about products or services is on the increase. Many companies have a crisis plan in place that covers mainstream media, but that’s no longer enough. A critical first step is to review any crisis plans or manuals that you have, and drag them into the social age.       
2.  Scenario training
Similarly it’s little use having excellent media training for your executives if the battle for hearts and minds is actually being won and lost on Twitter. When the brown stuff hits the whirring thing will your team be ready? Will roles be clearly set out? Are you prepared for the speed with which issues roll through social media? Investing in some scenario training that develops relevant social reputation management skills, will pay off.
3.  Establish your social outposts
Brands like Paperchase and Eurostar have been caught out when an issue has hit, because they’ve not taken prior ownership of key social media outposts, like Twitter. To effectively manage a reputational issue that is created, or amplified, in social media it’s necessary to have the same tools as your detractors. Get your outposts established now. They are key ‘engagement hubs’ when you are caught up in a reputational storm (see 7 below).         
4. Engage audiences in the good times
Consumers don’t simply want presence from brands in social media, they want engagement. Great news!  Through some smart content creation, and an appropriate conversation strategy, you can populate your outposts with engaged friends and followers. These guys are going to be your best asset if your reputation is ever under attack (see 9 below).  
5. Take-up active listening
What’s the best kind of crisis? One you prevent happening. Some of the messiest reputational car crashes in the social age e.g. Dell , Maclaran could have been minimised by effective listening combined with an effective response strategy. The starting point for all social reputation management is active listening.         
6. Provide rapid response
Speed has always been of the essence in issues and crisis comms. In the social age the pace is merciless. This is where the preparation, training and scenario role plays kick-in. A well drilled team, with the appropriate brand outposts to work with, can get your communications onto the front foot with a rapid response to any attack. 
7. Generate ‘stream’ of content
If you‘ve not succeeded in containing the issue (No 5), then you’re in full crisis mode. At this point both social and mainstream media are a voracious beast, hungry for information, the truth, the next development. If you can feed the beast fast enough, you have a chance to lead the agenda. If you don’t, you will leave an information vacuum that others will rush to fill with speculation, opinion and rumour, and the narrative is out of your control.         
8. Listen, learn, adapt
In the heart of the crisis your listening must be even more acute. What are the latest developments/issues out there? How are your messages being received, disseminated, mashed up? What insights can be uncovered to inform strategy, tone and content? You can’t respond to every comment so be selective. If you’ve already invested time in establishing your sector’s influencers, this is when it can pay off.     
9. Acknowledge and mobilise supporters
Remember those ‘good times’ back in No 4? They’ll seem a long way off at the moment! Don’t forget the power of a third party endorsement. Listen out for advocates and acknowledge and encourage their support. Don’t forget the power of your staff champions, and use effective internal comms to get everyone on the same page.       
10. Discover the ‘opportunity’
Every crisis can become an opportunity. Using the insights from your listening activity, create a proactive comms strategy that demonstrate your true colours as a company e.g. M&S, Domino’s Pizza. Remember, bad things happen to good companies, it’s how you respond that’s remembered.

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