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January/February 2011 — Web Exclusive

Social Media and Business: the New Rules

We’re in the midst of a new era of interaction between company and customer. Social media is becoming essential to society and business alike.

Consumers Set New Expectations

by Michael Castellon

In 1999, David “Doc” Searls and a small band of fellow journalists and technology enthusiasts proposed that the Internet was much more than just a new vehicle for text and images.

They saw that the Internet scratched a primitive itch possessed by humans: to connect and to be understood, to tell tales and participate in the village bazaar.

Read an exclusive interview with Doc Searls for his insight on the future of customer service at TexasInnovator.org.

Ancient markets depended on storytelling and word of mouth. The Internet, they predicted, would bring that back, forcing companies to interact with their customers on a one-to-one basis, as individuals. Companies that failed to participate in the new model would be doomed.

More than a decade later, the theories proposed by Searls and his colleagues, collected in a book called The Cluetrain Manifesto, have proven astonishingly accurate.

Cluetrain contained 95 “theses,” such as: Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors. Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance. And companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog and pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

Today, poorly treated customers can use Twitter and Facebook to inform hundreds or thousands of readers about shoddy service, or visit Yelp.com and record a bad restaurant experience in an online journal for millions of other foodies. And companies are well aware of the new power their customers possess.

We’re in the midst of a new era of interaction between company and customer. Social media — the online tools of interaction and communication — are becoming essential to society and business alike.

One on One

Companies, no matter how small or large, must interact with their customers as individuals, with a human voice. Those who do not may be doomed to obsolescence.

Few companies in Texas use social media as effectively as Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. Southwest’s employees blog, use Twitter, post to Facebook and use e-mail to promote travel deals and handle customer service requests. Southwest’s corporate Twitter feed has more than 1.1 million followers.

Linda Rutherford,
Vice President for Communications and Strategic Outreach, Southwest Airlines

“We want very little of our content to be ‘corporate talk,’” says Linda Rutherford, vice president for communications and strategic outreach at the airline. Her teams oversee Southwest’s social media channels. “The message is ‘we’re humans, and we know you are, too.’”

Last September, for example, when Hurricane Earl threatened much of the Eastern Seaboard, Southwest took to Twitter and Facebook to tell customers about delays and operational status.

“When Southwest started in 1971, the company had no money for advertising,” Rutherford says. “We had to depend a lot on one-on-one conversations. These ‘microconversations’ are what we were doing 40 years ago, so it’s a natural fit for us to use these tools.”

According to a report from Forrester Research, 145 million U.S. users use social web applications, generating 500 billion page views per year. The report also found that our online conversations with one another rival the impact of online advertising –– more or less as The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted in 1999.

Word of mouth has become essential to successful business.

Metrics For Success

Southwest counts its followers on Facebook and Twitter, and also measures customer engagement by the number of comments left on their blogs.

Full Disclosure — employees using social media have to tell members of the public they work for Southwest. They also must include a disclaimer on any personal sites that says they’re not speaking for the company in any official capacity.

Seek Opportunity — any customer can be a reporter, and with every interaction there’s an opportunity to win a customer. Southwest views its guidelines as an opportunity for excellent customer service.

Southwest Airlines Logo

It’ll Come to Us

Kelly Park works in human resources for a rent-to-own company in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In her free time, she blogs on topics ranging from Star Wars to literature. After spending a decade traveling the world with the U.S. Navy, she now uses social tools to meet and connect with friends all over the world. Her long-term goal is to put her knowledge of social networks to work.

“Companies are realizing that these computers aren’t running themselves, and that there are people behind them that expect engagement.”

— Kelly Park

“I just find it fascinating,” she says. “As human beings, we’re curious about others, how other people are doing. I can do that online.”

By plugging into virtual communities and speaking their language, Park hopes to someday help organizations participate in online conversations.

“Companies are realizing that these computers aren’t running themselves, and that there are people behind them that expect engagement,” she says. “Companies have to be involved. They have to be transparent. We’re not going to drift toward them, they have to come to us.”

A recent CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,500 companies found that 35 percent of them use social media. About 25 percent reported using social media to connect with clients and find new business, while 21 percent use these tools to recruit and research potential employees.

There’s little doubt that these trends are pushing more and more companies to hire social media professionals.

In late September, the job search website SimplyHired.com listed more than 300 social media jobs in Texas alone, from small companies to big players such as Dell.

At Southwest, social tools are delegated among communications and marketing staff. About three positions concentrate on social media.

“We’ve been good at using existing staff and cross-utilizing talent,” Rutherford says.

New trends continue to fuel growth in social media. The Internet is growing away from the browser and toward mobile apps that run on phones and tablets, from text and still images to full-motion video. Local online advertising is becoming more important, as are strategies for business success that move beyond advertising.

Service in the Moment

For companies such as Southwest, the rise of social media means continued evolution in customer service.

“We’re looking at expanding customer service ‘in the moment’ to help address customers the moment they reach out to us,” Rutherford says. “We’ll also be looking at ways to leverage consumer-generated content, so our customers can help tell our story.”

Asked what her dream job would be, Kelly Park doesn’t hesitate.

“Working in social media for George Lucas,” she says. “Without a doubt.” FN

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