There is no question that social networking has changed the way that we communicate with our friends. Since the foundation of the earliest social network, Friends Reunited, back in 2000, the social media world has exploded. We’ve become social network junkies, sending 58 million tweets worldwide every day, around half of those from mobile phones. But social media has also changed many other things as well. For example, one study on the way that we shop found that over one fifth of us use our mobile phones while shopping. More than half of us are checking prices, but a similar number are looking for reviews or recommendations, and nearly two fifths are contacting family or friends for advice. You can be sure that many of those are doing so via social networks or websites with user-generated content.

The rise and rise of social media

Social media is massive. Twitter has 35.5 million users in China alone. Worldwide, it has 645 million users. Facebook, the biggest social network, has 1.26 billion active users, who upload 300 million photos every day, and spend an average of more than six hours per month on the site. And while research suggests that only about one fifth to one quarter of tweets or posts to Facebook or other sites are ever actually read, that’s still a lot of activity.

A recent report by Harvard Business Review found that 79% of companies planned to use or already use social media. However, only 12% of the companies surveyed considered that they used social media effectively. Others were still struggling to identify why they should use social media, and many were unaware of which social media platforms were used by their key customers, or where conversations were happening about them. Companies, it seems, are generally way behind their customers in their use of social media.

In our private lives, we have become empowered consumers. We know where to go to find information about planned purchases in advance, and at the time. We expect to be able to compare prices up front, and to find reviews and recommendations from fellow-consumers, both those we know and those we don’t. And when we don’t like something, we know how to make sure that the company, and everyone else, knows about it. As one company executive puts it, a disgruntled customer used to tell maybe ten others. Now they can, and do, tell ten thousand others.

Since this is the case in our private lives, we generally expect it to be the same in our work lives. This has had some interesting effects on the way that companies work, because of course the empowered consumer is, in work mode, the empowered employee.

Human to human

The days are past when staff in the customer service department were the only people who ever communicated directly with customers. And the other marketing tool which is slowly dying is the use of company ‘lines to take’ or ‘messages’, churned out without thought by ‘customer service executives’. When we, as consumers, communicate with a company, we expect to get a human response to our issue, preferably from someone who knows what we, and they, are talking about, and not an agreed line. We also expect to be able to communicate with particular expert individuals within that company, especially if they’re active on social media.

And when we, as employees, see a customer who wants to communicate directly with us via social media, why would we not respond? As David Weinburger and colleagues set out ten years ago in the Cluetrain Manifesto, it is human to want to make connections with other humans, especially when they have already reached out to us. The best and most innovative companies are beginning to see the benefits of this direct human to human contact, and starting to encourage it as a way to create two-way conversations with customers. This both engages customers, and harnesses them as a resource for the company, a bit like crowdsourcing.

Embracing conversation

That is perhaps the biggest difference between those companies who are effective users of social media, and those who are not: they have embraced the idea of social media as a way of having conversations with customers, and using the insights so generated. Those who are using social media as just another channel to push out marketing messages are perhaps rather missing the point of it. Given the way that consumers can use social media to punish companies, the learning curve for these less-effective users may be steep indeed.

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