(This post first appeared in the 2nd Online Customer Engagement Survey Report by cScape and E-consultancy which you can download for free, registration needed, here.)

“We need to engage with our customers to improve our conversion, loyalty and retention metrics”, says a keen young marketing consultant in an annual departmental brain-storming session. “Well, yes, I’ve heard that results in good ROI”, says the budget-manager. “So what technologies shall we invest in? Blogs, RSS, wiki, social networking or viral?”

The company launches a project scoping exercise, brings in an agency, builds a business case, tests and refines it. The marketing department soon delivers a marvel of customer engagement widgets, which the CEO delights in mentioning to journalists as evidence of his innovative cojones … until one sceptic visits the cutting-edge community only to discover he is its first and only customer.

The plan went wrong with the budget manager’s first question.  Because the hidden assumption was that customer engagement is merely a bolt-on, technical solution for meeting the big, hairy performance target of the year. Engagement strategies can undoubtedly realise such aims – but not if they’re your starting point. This is likely to deliver a platform about as authentic and alluring as a nightclub chat-up line.

It only gets worse when the solution is scoped out as a technical device, even an IT resource, rather than as an organisational commitment to forging more valuable relationships with your customer. That fetishism for projects and deliverables is precisely the corporate nightmare we all recoil at when experiencing it from the outside, as customers. It doesn’t require too keen a sense of irony to appreciate why a customer engagement plan developed in isolation from customers might run into trouble. Connect first, then develop.

Start from the customer

Any customer engagement strategy that starts from a channel marketing perspective tends to fail because it treats engagement as an add-on to the existing marketing suite rather than as an operational necessity. In fact, engagement is a priority for your customer.

Valuable customer relationships only form around organisations that demonstrate a rich understanding of its audience members, in ways that touch those members so persuasively that they are keen to experience the relationships again.

Effective engagements are internalised by us as customers, becoming tradable tokens of our identity, symbols we actively desire to share with our peers to confirm the sensibilities we have in common.

To attain that level of engagement, the organisation must first profoundly understand what needs its customers have; then decide which of those needs it makes sense for it to attempt to answer, as a brand; and last but not least, assess those options in light of the capacity available to mobilise departments around consistent delivery of that answer. The web 2.0 vehicle, whatever form it takes, is merely the “front end” for a much deeper organisational alignment around the customer.

Meaningful relationships

Few of us consider ourselves to be part of a determinate community, political or social group, with settled values and predictable discretionary tastes. Instead we participate, with varying degrees of engagement, and for varying periods, in a range of possibly overlapping social groups – only partially identifying with most of the people we get to know there.

This forces us to engage in conscious search behaviour, to construct the networks that were once handed to us by our un-chosen communities. Web technologies fit that need perfectly. New parents far from their immediate families for instance can go online to find others who are in a similar position. Online, I can search, find and meet a cycling buddy from my neighbourhood within minutes. Conversely, consider approaching random cyclists on the street and hoping to get along – it just can’t happen offline.

Another consequence is that we come to “know” many more people than was typical in the past. Online social networking allows us to link up with multiple others – those links will be of varying strengths, but there is always a chance that even a weak connection could suddenly prove decisive.

Strength in many weak ties

Indeed, weak ties arguably offer the greatest opportunities to receive the kind of information that might lead to a job offer or a rewarding personal relationship: their low maintenance requirements allow us to plug in to a mass of sources. Just consider typical Facebook activities where we join multiple online groups and exchange brief messages with a range of people.  The expectations of these interactions are lower, but can lead to many more opportunities for making new connections. By contrast, our relatively small network of close ties is much more high maintenance – and more predictable.

Realising the power of weak ties encourages us to extend our networks yet further. Social networking technology helps as it involves onward referrals and searches along multiple dimensions (the book you’re currently reading, your life stage, your physical location), while easing the psychological anxieties associated with offline introductions.

The shopfront of Me

B.J. Fogg, of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, has observed that groups on Facebook are not especially group-like – we simply use membership for badging ourselves, as a prop to express our identity, a passing solidarity or just sharing a joke. Such devices help us construct and enrich a highly controlled, even narcissistic, performance of ourselves – a profile – at once satisfying and infinitely, insatiably open to modification.

Even when we are not online our profile is interacting: It’s telling visitors what we think is great, asking them what they think of us, if they are interested in us, if they think we are hot … but above all, it is always on. While you sleep, work, or loaf, someone may encounter your online self, from any of a million different directions – and offer you a job, a date or their friendship.

Starting with the customer

The first questions for would be customer-engagers should not be “what technology should we deploy?”, nor “how can we engage our audience?”, but instead:
“What is it that our customers are currently doing, where are they doing it and what do they want to achieve.” And guess what –  the best person to ask is … your customer.

What is ‘social media’?

January 18, 2008

Let’s ponder the question in the singular. What is a social medium? Well it’s quite obvious that the qualifier ‘social’ sets social apart from unsocial media.

Contemporary discussions around social media however, tend to define social media, in contradistinction to traditional media. Does that mean that traditional media i.e. pre-Internet media are unsocial? And what would an unsocial medium be like?

All media are social: unsocial media are broken media

I think that every medium of communication is social in so far it achieves its essential role, that is, to successfully mediate communication between two or more people. Unsocial media are broken media. All media are by definition social.

The most oft quoted distinction between social and traditional media has been the direction of communication. Social media are two-way while traditional media are one-way. But communication does not have to be two-way. That is why we speak of one-way communication; because it involves the successful communication of one person’s message to another. But then pre-Internet media are also social. Then why is everybody talking about ‘Social Media’? What is new about them?

Because there is something absolutely novel about this kind of media:

  • Because they allow everyday people, every member of what was formerly called the audience, to easily become a media owner/publisher. They give every pair of eyeballs a mouthpiece.
  • Because they allow their audience to become a self-conscious social unity whose members can identify and communicate with one another. They are not isolated in their own homes and therefore they are not passive.
  • Because they enable their audience to communicate with the publisher through the same user-friendly medium.

I ve written a blog post that discusses in depth what is novel about the so called ‘social media’ by contrasting their features with traditional media. If you have the time, check it out here.

Is the name ‘social media’ appropriate if all media are social?

From this point of view the name ‘social media’ is not really correct in that social media is a characteristic of all media that work properly – is not the exclusive property of ‘new media’. However as the philosopher Kripke taught us this is not the way names work, and, therefore not the way they should work. Darthmouth was a village built near the mouth of the river Dart. After a few hundred years the river Dart is nowhere near Dartmouth. Nevertheless people’s reference to the village works just fine. Nobody is confused by the fact that the mouth of the river Dart is no where near Dartmouth.

Similarly, although all media are by definition social, the majority of the people that read, write and discuss about social media, have reserved this term to refer exclusively to internet media such as blogs, wikis, social forums and networks etc And this works just fine. Everybody understands what particular media ‘social media’ refers to.

Is the name ‘new media’ appropriate?

Similarly in 20 years time these media are not going to be new. But we may still be referring to them as ‘new media’. Therefore although this name is also inappropriate in so far it carries out its task correctly – that everyone using it refers to the same kind of media – it is also a good name.

Is the name ‘digital media’ appropriate?

This name, as Fidel has suggested (read his comment below) is also not appropriate given that there are digital media that do not have the characteristics most people ascribe to what they refer to as ‘social media’ (e.g. blogs, wikis, forums, ratings, tagging etc). Take as an example a brochureware website. It is digital but it certainly isn’t social.

Do we need a name?

As is so often the case it is the trip that matters and not the destination. It is the baptism debate itself that is fruitful not the name(s) we will end up calling the baby by.

So what are social media?

The reason why the term ‘social media’ (blogs, email, social networks, wiki, forums etc) is so important is because it tries to isolate a species of media that all share certain significant characteristics. Although in the aforementioned discussion I have been unable to find an appropriate name for them, I think it is important to present and discuss their definitive characteristics:

1. Media access

Broadcasters

  • Old media: Handful of broadcasters. Everyday people have no ownership\access to the mass media as the cost\skill barriers involved are unsurpassable [3].
  • Internet media: Audience as broadcasters. Be they one-to-many or many-to-many, new media due to their minimal access requirements (cost\skills\time) allow ordinary people to easily participate as owners\publishers of their own media outlets. Millions of once-off, part- or full time broadcasters.

Content

  • Old media: Uniform content and centralised filtering of content. Same message sent to everybody. Due to high costs of content production and media distribution only the content that addresses the needs of the head rather than the tail of demand is broadcast. As the mass-market appeal becomes every media outlets priority, uniform messages end up homogenizing society.
  • Internet media: The long tail of content. No matter how idiosyncratic, niche, controversial or even perverse your message is there will be someone who will be interested in it. Given the low price tag and knowledge barrier involved in producing and distributing content it is cost-effective to do so. Given the passion of most everyday new media publishers in the topic they discuss it is worthwhile to do so.

2. Direction of communication

Publisher – Audience

  • Old media: One-way communication. The publisher’s monologue.
  • Internet media: Two-way, interactive communication between the publisher and the audience.

Audience Community

  • Old media: Isolated viewers with no means to identify each others as receivers of the same message and therefore of their common point of reference, shared interests etc. No means to achieve a self-awareness\consciousness of the audience community.
  • Internet media: The option to see and interact with other viewers of the same content, creates an audience that instead of consisting of isolated and passive viewers constitutes an active, self-conscious community. This feature is present in most Web 2.0 applications.

3. Content distribution

  • Old media: Fleeting interruption.
  • Internet: Permanent – Targeted. Even in cases of one-to-many online mass media such as blogs, video sharing etc they are unobtrusive and targeted, given that they are accessible only after one searches for them, are recommended by a friend, or responds to signpoists that alert him/her of their existence. The content posted in the internet’s media channels be it a blog, YouTube, FlickR, Social networks etc is permanent and therefore accessible at any time.

So what do you think?

Any more appropriate names? Any characteristics of ‘social media’ that I have forgotten?

Communication as a universal human need

The unexpected speed with which the internet was adopted in the West is an excellent example of how unaware we often are of the future impact and potential of our inventions, in this case, due to a limited understanding of the human need for communication.

The ability to communicate any form of content (audio, video, writing etc) to any number of people one wishes is a universal human need. One example is that of Samuel Morse, who was also a famous portrait artist in the U.S.

“While Morse was working on a portrait of General Lafayette in Washington, his wife, who lived about 500 kilometers away, grew ill and died. But it took seven days for the news to reach him. In his grief and remorse, he began to wonder if it were possible to erase barriers of time and space, so that no one would be unable to reach a loved one in time of need. Pursuing this thought, he came to discover how to use electricity to convey messages, and so he invented the telegraph and, indirectly, the ITU.” [1]

Mobile phones would for the same reasons have been indispensable for buffalo-hunting Indians or for ancient Greeks in the Battle of Marathon.

Comparing the internet with traditional media

“We know telephones are for talking with people, televisions are for watching programs, and highways are for driving. So what’s the web for?” [2]

What can the internet do? Better: What can people do with the internet? To answer this question and examine the social adoption and cultural impact of the internet it is helpful to compare it with its pre-existing competitors.

The media that precede the internet can be classified for our purposes as one-way (cinema, TV, radio, print) and two-way (speech, post, telephone).Mass media have up to the end of the 20th century always been one-way[3] given that there was no interactive mass medium available.

It is incorrect to talk about the internet as a single medium as it can function as both  any of the old media (phone, post, TV etc) and a number of ever-evolving new media platforms (Blogs, email, social networks, wiki, forums etc). Though they are different kind of media, each with its own unique characteristics, there are certain characteristics they share.

1.    Media access

       Broadcasters

  • Old media: Handful of broadcasters. Everyday people have no ownership\access to the mass media as the cost\skill barriers involved are unsurpassable [3].
  • Internet media: Audience as broadcasters. Be they one-to-many or many-to-many, new media due to their minimal access requirements (cost\skills\time) allow ordinary people to easily participate as owners\publishers of their own media outlets. Millions of once-off, part- or full time broadcasters.

      Content

  • Old media: Uniform content and centralised filtering of content. Same message sent to everybody. Due to high costs of content production and media distribution only the content that addresses the needs of the head rather than the tail of demand is broadcast. As the mass-market appeal becomes every media outlets priority, uniform messages end up homogenizing society.
  • Internet media: The long tail of content. No matter how idiosyncratic, niche, controversial or even perverse your message is there will be someone who will be interested. Given the low price tag and knowledge barrier involved in producing and distributing content it is cost-effective to do so. Given the passion of most everyday new media publishers in the topic they discuss it is worthwhile to do so.

2.    Direction of communication

     Publisher – Audience

  • Old media: One-way communication. The publisher’s monologue.
  • Internet media: Two-way, interactive communication between the publisher and the audience.

      Audience Community

  • Old media: Isolated viewers with no means to identify each others as receivers of the same message and therefore of their common point of reference, shared interests etc. No means to achieve a self-awareness\consciousness of the audience community.
  • Internet media: The option to see and interact with other viewers of the same content, creates an audience that instead of consisting of isolated and passive viewers constitutes an active, self-conscious community. This feature is present in most Web 2.0 applications.

3.       Content distribution

  • Old media: Fleeting interruption.
  • Internet: Permanent – Targeted. Even in cases of one-to-many online mass media such as blogs, video sharing etc they are unobtrusive and targeted, given that they are accessible only after one searches for them, are recommended by a friend, or responds to signpoists that alert him/her of their existence. The content posted in the internet’s media channels be it a blog, YouTube, FlickR, Social networks etc is permanent and therefore accessible at any time.

What appears in retrospect as an incredible oversight – that no one anticipated that everyday people desired to become media publishers\content creators and that as soon as they would be given low-cost, low-skill, access to mass media they would go nuts – is nothing more than proof of our unconsciousness of

  • the future impact and potential of our inventions.
  • the human needs for communication.

Signs of this desire before the internet: phone in on talk radio, game shows, pirate radio stations. 


[1] Al Gore, Buenos Aires Speech, International Telecommunications Union, 21 March 1994

[2] Locke et al The Cluetrain Manifesto p.39[3] With the exception of pirate radio stations, the only medium available to everyday people before the Web 2.0 age was the post, which was too expensive as a one-to-many mass medium and the phone, for which teleconferencing, as a many-to-many medium, was only a later development.

This post has been rewritten and can be viewed here.

As I change my mind, and evolve (well i hope so) my views on a topic, older posts will be revisited and revised. I’m not sure if this is against some rule of blogging etiquette but I feel this is the only way to write. 

Some people think that The Book, is a self-sufficient totality that should remain unchanged in all eternity (sort of like the Bible). Some people think that a journal’s value lies in its ability to display the evolution of one’s thought. But I do not see why someone would be interested to trace mine in this blog or to read posts that express viewpoint on which i have changed my mind.

I think that everything is written in perpetual beta (This view of the book originates from people like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida). I can understand that one may feel he or she has finalised a piece of work. But i can understand it only as a fleeting state of mind or as a sign of thought whose evolution has stopped. Although i would not advocate that ‘King Lear’ could do with an extra Act, im sure that were Shakespeare alive he would have made tramendous changes since.

Leaving art works aside, i think that this is a very valid point for ‘academic’ or quasi-academic works that purport to explain a phenomenon. Two famous thinkers that changed their minds tramendously from their early to their late works are Karl Marx (his views on the mechanics of social change) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (his views on language from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Logical Investigations).

Well go on then, read that improved post here.

‘Engagement’ is a word with many meanings (vow, betrothal, involvement etc). In its use within marketing it can be boiled down to a single concept: one-way relation. If x is engaged with y, x is related to y, which is not to say that y is also related to x.

The concept of customer engagement furthermore deals with a particular kind of one-way relation. The kind of relation customer engagement refers to is delimited by the following:

  • Subject of engagement: The subject of engagement should not be limited to customers. Although ‘visitor engagement’ is better in that it takes into account non-customer visitors to your website/store, its focus on measuring people’s engagement with your brand on your own premises is too restrictive. It is important to measure the engagement of customers, prospective customers and detractors with our brand, in every space they choose to engage with it in.
  • Object of engagement: The subject’s relationship with a brand/company/ product/consumption topic.

Now that we have defined what kind of relationships customer engagement deals with let’s look at the criteria with which we can differentiate and classify the ways in which customers engage:

  • Kind: Positive or negative. Customers can be positively or negatively engaged with a company/product.
  • Degree: The degree of positive/negative engagement lies on a continuum that ranges from low involvement, namely, the psychological state of apathy, to high. An engaged person is someone with an above average involvement with his or her object of relatedness.
  Customer non-Customer
Positively Engaged

A1

B1

Non-engaged –Apathy

A2

B2

Negatively Engaged

A3

B3

A1 customers refer to what has been termed after McConnell and Huba as customer evangelists. These are your most valuable customers (not simply because of the recency/frequency of their custom but because they offer value that translates to revenue by means of a range of other behaviours such as advocacy).

A2 customers constitute the majority of most companies’ customers. These customers are not loyal to you – for whatever reason they are not really interested in your company/brand/product. They will defect if a competitor manages to interest them in their offering.

A3 customers are ready to defect. But that is not what is most troubling about them. They are keen to badmouth you whenever they get the chance.

The Chevy Tahoe viral ad spin-offs were a case of B3 engagement. All these people, creators and viewers alike, where passionately engaged with their fight against SUV’s.

Positively engaged non-customers involve all those people who for whatever reason cannot buy your product, be that a teenager love for a Lamborghini, or a 25 year old bachelor’s fondness of Mothercare products.

Apathetic non-customers are people who are aware of your brand but couldn’t really care less. Just imagine how many brands you know you are neither a customer of nor really have any feelings/thoughts towards.

Please tell me what you think.

(This post was written mostly for myself and is more of a thought experiement. I would suggest reading this post which is the culmination of this thread of thinking.)

This morning I had Max Kalehoff’s ‘Top Risks To Watch Out For In Your Social Media Strategy’ post for breakfast. The first paragraph (I only got to the second one before I started writing this) got me thinking:

“I’m beginning to hate the term “social media” more everyday. As David Pogue, tech columnist at the NYTimes once said, “What is social media? A bunch of televisions talking to one another at a cocktail party?”

It got me thinking about the meaning of social media. What is a social medium? It seems that the qualifier ‘social’ would set social media apart from unsocial media, though it is usually ‘traditional media’ that social media is usually defined in contradistinction to.

One of the most often quoted differences between social and traditional media is that the former and not the latter are two-way media.

However that would mean that traditional media looks like this…
fig1.jpg

…in which case two-way media (whereby the receiver is also a sender) look like this:

fig2.jpg
 

But there is still something missing. Though the receiver is also a sender it remains unclear who the sender/receiver sends/receives messages to/from. Fig. 2 represents a model of two way communication where each sender is also a receiver, but so does Fig. 3:

fig3.jpg

This last figure suggests that media create a social unity, by virtue of their broadcast, which allows for two-way communication between the sender and the receiver as well as between the community of receivers. In today’s social media it is not simply the case that receivers of the same message can communicate with one another as well as with the sender as if united by virtue of being receivers of the same message. Rather it looks more like this:

fig4.jpg

Two things are wrong with Fig. 4:

(a)  There is a centre from which everything begins. In reality there is not much of a centre or even of a multiplicity of centers anymore.

(b)  There are strict lines of communication. In reality however any node can communicate with any other.

That’s the problem with understanding social media visually. By adding these two essential elements to a visual representation of social media you obtain a near-infinite image. Almost infinite in both of these dimensions: near-infinite nodes (as many as senders) with near-infinite lines of connection between them (each node might be connected with potentially every other node).

Call me a champion of capitalism if you will but considering the ease with which an individual in western societies can become a sender nowadays I think this is the best system of social communication in the history of humanity. If anyone knows of a social system that provides with a model of social communication that is as decentralized and therefore non-hierarchical as this I would be more than glad if they would let me know. I realise that there are still nodes that are very powerful senders and that there is always going to be sender-power inequality, but i still think that the model of social communication we are experiencing in recent years is unprecedented and has challenged their power to a high degree. I think it is all part and parcel of the shrinking of the public sphere, understood as a mass market, which Chris Anderson is talking about in the Long Tail.

Finally, to do justice to traditional media, they are better represented by the following communication model rather than Fig. 1:

fig5better.jpg 

One difference is that all the two-way lines of communication (between the second and third order nodes) take place via the medium of word-of-mouth. I’m off to read the rest of Max’s post.

web revolutionCustomers have always been knowledgeable about the products they consume. It is due to the widespread social adoption of the internet however that this type of knowledge is for the first time being transcribed and shared.

The volume of customer-created, product/company-related knowledge accessible to an individual customer has increased very little in the past due to medium through which this kind of knowledge was expressed, namely, word of mouth. By its very nature word-of-mouth communication prohibits the pooling and limits the sharing of its content.

Today, for the first time, the knowledge customers possess enjoys the objectification and permanence that derive from its transcription, which in turn allow both its pooling as well as its sharing and exchange. The reason that this kind of knowledge has not been transcribed up to now is obviously not that customers only recently learned to write. Rather it is the fact that transcribing this knowledge is for the first time actually valuable because it can be easily shared and accessed online. The customer’s newfound ability to transcribe, publish, share and pool knowledge about companies and products radically empowers him as a subject that creates and consumes a new, and from now on, ever-increasing body of knowledge: ‘customer knowledge’. Let’s look at what customer knowledge consists in by means of a rough classification of one kind of customer knowledge, namely, product-related knowledge:

  1. Product review: “I know exactly what the positive and negative features of my Giant FCR 3.0 bicycle are, and why I think it offers good value.”
  2. Product troubleshooting: “I know why my laptop suddenly shuts down without a warning: overheating. I know how to repair it myself: clean the CPU heatsink. I know how to notice the problem before my laptop shuts down: the keyboard and the bottom of the laptop are very hot.”
  3. Product hack: “I bought a bunk bed for my 2 boys a few years back but we ve since moved house and now each has his own room. I turned their bunk bed into 2 single beds and a garden bench!”

(A blog post that offers a more holistic classification of customer knowledge will follow.)


This knowledge is valuable for our customers because it is…

·         free

·         credible

·         relevant to their needs

·         easy to find 

 

For marketers it is valuable because it is (in decreasing order of importance)

·         valuable our customers: by facilitating the pooling and sharing of this knowledge we increase the value we offer to our customers.

·         persuasive: the persuasiveness of this kind of knowledge is a lot higher than that of our own marketing communications.

·         available: whether in our customers minds or blogs this knowledge has already been created.

·         free: while it would not have been cost effective for organisations to create this knowledge (this is a hypothesis open to doubt – please comment) customers are happy to contribute it for free.

·         relevant – relevant to our customers most specific needs.

…in short, it is an invaluable resource. 


Here are two things we can do to take advantage of our customer’s knowledge:
 

A.      Create the facilities that allow your customers to contribute their knowledge:

1.       Give the ability to your customers to rate your products, write product reviews and recommend your products in both your own and other sites. Provide them with the information and/or allow them to trial your products in order to be able to do so to the best of their ability.

·         Gain a customers word of mouth recommendation, rating or review, especially when there is a number of them has very high persuasive potential.

2.       Create a moderated wiki-based customer service or customer FAQ section.

·         Greatly improve your customer service for free.

3.       Create a section, a social network etc where they can post these. Reward the best hacks. Incorporate the best hack into new product development/redevelopment.

·         Increase the value of your products and the degree of your customer’s engagement with them. Your customers customise your products to their needs themselves. This, believe it or not, makes them happy.

B.      Stimulate the target customer’s motives for contributing their knowledge:

·         Loves the brand: show that you recognise his love and love him back.

·         Seeks public recognition through expertise: allow him to publicly establish himself as an expert.

·         Wants to contribute to the community: allow him to do so and show him how his contributions helped make a difference. Thank and reward him further on those grounds.


In conclusion, customer knowledge far from being detrimental to companies can be utilised for their as well as their target customers’ benefit.