I listen to NPR all the time and one of my favorite shows is Marketplace Money .  These folks are smart, savvy and easy to understand – it’s a great place to catch up on my financial news and hear what’s up in the consumer market.  This weekend, they ran their normal “Getting Personal” segment and I was, once again, humbled by the new world order that any business with customers needs to understand – NOW.

During this segment of the show, listeners call in with questions that might be about business, finance, taxes, insurance, consumer issues, etc, etc.  This week’s segment caught my attention as the second caller was a high school student named Fiona from Sacramento, CA.  Fiona spoke with David Lazarus, a consumer columnist for the LA Times along with the show’s host, Tess Vigeland, about her dissatisfaction with Starbucks.  Seems Fiona has two Starbucks stores within a mile of each other near her house – one sells breakfast sandwiches and one does not – and Fiona wanted to know why.  She called the Starbucks customer service line and got the brush off, tried to contact market research, a non-starter.  Then David Lazarus got into the act and called corporate headquarters to find the answer for her.  Even he was unable to get a cogent response.

Predictably, you can guess what happened next.  If you are a business owner, a corporate executive, a customer service rep, a PR person or in marketing, are you wincing yet??  After discussing the lack of customer service on air for a good 5 minutes, David Lazarus suggested Fiona copy the link from the show once it was available online (Getting Personal) and send it to Starbucks to see if that got their attention – OUCH!  Tess Vigeland invited Fiona back to report the outcome – OUCH, OUCH!  I know we’ve all heard it before, the customer service story that makes news, goes viral and has direct business impact.  This is the stuff of business myth and legends.

Of course, this is nothing new; it’s been around since business began.  It used to be word of mouth (I tell ten friends, they tell ten friends, etc, etc – until the whole town knew about it).  But with the rise of social media and online communities – the volume level of customers is amplified exponentially in today’s virtual environment.  That amplification is explosive, reducing the potential time from consumer-service-hero to customer-service-shame to nanoseconds.  Couple this with customers that are more educated, more empowered and just plain louder and you have service opportunities that must be managed everywhere.

I believe Starbucks can certainly fix this very easily – contacting Fiona and the Marketplace Money folks ASAP with a big, sincere, well-publicized mea culpa is certainly a start.  Working to fix the internal communication problem wouldn’t hurt either.  Most reasonable people understand we all make mistakes. Most reasonable consumers are willing to forgive if someone comes clean and admits they blew it.  But in an age where things move at the speed of light and fickle consumer sentiment can change quickly, brand integrity is built or broken by bits and bytes.  And when there is no strategic plan for managing your online brand or if you try to ignore this venue, you miss huge opportunities and could find yourself in a virtual, yet avoidable, PR nightmare (just ask Tiger Woods).  What would you prefer – a proactive or reactive approach?  Here’s what I say: be the hero, Starbucks, call Fiona and invite her over for a breakfast sandwich – today.

My father got my announcement about our new website the other day – http://www.sophiathinkconsulting.com and he immediately shot back a link
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/join-my-im-bitter-about-twitter-club-2009-07-29?siteid=nwtpm to indicate his opinion of social media. And while I appreciate the blog topic which contends that investing financially in Twitter at this time is risky business, I think my father is missing the point.

Tools aside, the social media industry’s overriding mission – to create mechanisms to build virtual communities of like-minded neighbors has legs. It’s here to stay. Anyone focused solely on the tools (be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or the myriad of other venues) is missing the point. I realize learning to navigate in this new arena can be daunting, but show me one smart executive that isn’t interested in cost-effective ways to connect with their market demographic.

Business leaders spend lots of time and money wracking their brains (and urging their employees) to seek effective methods to determine what their customers are thinking. Social media, for all its faults, provides a bird’s eye view into the thoughts of millions. The challenge for business leaders is pretty clear. They have to figure out how to listen to the participants by sifting through the ocean of data points so they get to the relevant messages. Not an easy task and particularly daunting in a venue that has proved impervious to short cuts….it takes time, consistency and authenticity (an elusive commodity) to cultivate a successful online presence.

Whether Twitter is a success story or goes the way of so many other technologies remains to be seen. But in a world enamored of the next big thing and addicted to spilling its guts with abandon, you can be sure there will be plenty of new options ready to step up and take its place.

I find the new social media world fascinating. But what I find even more fascinating is people’s reaction to it. There are a couple of things that are pretty clear about this new area.

  1. Its redefining the definition of personal (and in many cases, professional) privacy.
  2. There are lots of people leveraging it in today’s world for all sorts of purposes.

While the hardcore productivity and ROI statistics that the business world craves are pretty elusive and the general efficacies are still debatable, you can’t deny the tools are out there and they are definitely making headlines. Take it one step further – as traditional print media is under siege, social media and web news are also delivering the headlines.
For job seekers struggling with an extremely challenging job market, professional branding has become a necessity. And for many people who view technology with suspicion and who have long viewed tools like Face Book and MySpace as kid’s toys, this is a BIG adjustment. LinkedIn has certainly provided more of a grown-up meeting place for today’s professionals, but even this venue doesn’t reduce many people’s main concern – “who is looking at me?” The anonymous nature of this new world is just plain scary for many people.
The allure for businesses, non-profits and political groups is also intriguing. Most of these social media services are free and they have the potential to reach untold millions globally with seemingly minimal effort. That makes these tools attractive to even the biggest techno-phobs. Also, you hear about social media everywhere these days – even National Public Radio (NPR) uses Twitter.
This overwhelming onslaught of options at your finger tips gives you a frantic feeling that you are missing something, that you aren’t part of the mainstream if you aren’t participating. So not using these tools puts you at a disadvantage, right? Ironically, because the ROI statistics aren’t clear, no one is quite sure what that disadvantage means…
How do you balance? In some ways, this is not unlike proper etiquette at the office, professional presence at a business conference or judicious use of any media venue. Using commonsense helps and showing discretion, particularly as you get started, is smart. Choosing the right tools for your purpose is a necessity as it’s almost impossible to use all these tools to their full advantage without a huge time commitment. All these things require “care and feeding”; they aren’t a onetime affair. You can’t set them up and then walk away – you need a plan for maintaining them long term.
Over the next few weeks, I am working in collaboration with a few of my talented, social media-savvy friends to explore this topic from multiple angles. We hope you will join in the discussion as we probe the interesting new world of virtual branding through social media. Enjoy!