Companies are gradually ditching decades of one-way communication to embrace social media
Sandwich chain Pret A Manger is relaunching its Quinoa Rice Pot after customers took to Twitter demanding that the vegetarian product be made suitable for vegans.
Pret’s head of social media and PR Julia Monro says her team picked up on these comments and fed them back to the chain’s food team. They took on board the suggestion and have created a vegan version, receiving plaudits from customers.
This is one small example of why businesses need a social media strategy, says Ms Monro. “With all the social feedback and conversations there’s this great opportunity to learn what the customers think of you. I’ve learnt more from social media than from running focus groups,” she says. “It gives you the opportunity to deliver amazing customer service in real time.”
Pret is a relative late-comer to the world of social media. Other high street chains have created huge social media operations over the past five years. Starbucks UK has amassed 1.35 million likes on Facebook, while Costa has 1.25 million.
However, Pret A Manger put off creating a robust social strategy until last spring. Most communication for the brand is done in stores and on packaging, but chief executive Clive Schlee eventually saw the advantages of having direct conversations with customers and hired Ms Monro from Marks & Spencer to boost its presence.
“Pret has built a reputation for customer service in our shops, so it is a natural progression to offer that online,” says Ms Monro. But many businesses are still shying away from getting involved with social media, she says. “Social media directly impacts on reputation, so people rightly see there can be risk attached.”
A decade after Facebook and Twitter launched, businesses have yet to get over their fears of interacting with the public. As James Kirkham, head of social and mobile at ad agency Leo Burnett, says: “It is going against decades of one-way communication. People have been used to putting out their brand message, but are fearful of getting a message back.”
Brands have huge power to influence conversations by creating interesting, engaging social strategies
Perhaps these fears are understandable. There are plenty of examples of brands getting monstered on social media by campaigners, such as Greenpeace, or ridiculed by members of the public. Some corporations are wary of putting their heads above the parapet for fear of drawing attention to themselves. The sheer volume of embarrassing Twitter fails for which brands have been lampooned is enough to make any business wary of getting involved.
But Mr Kirkham says brands need to learn to act transparently and realise that the best strategy is to engage with critics and try to address their concerns. Brands have huge power to influence conversations by creating interesting, engaging social strategies. And if campaigners are targeting brands on social media, those brands have to be prepared to respond.
Meanwhile, Jim Coleman, managing director at agency We Are Social, says while many young marketing directors fully embrace social media, there are “silver-haired marketers” who fail to grasp the impact it can have on their business. “Some of the reticence comes from the top of the organisation with people asking will it drive value for us? There’s a real struggle still to justify a spend of a couple of hundred thousand pounds in an area where it is difficult to measure direct business value,” he says.
Social media has been transformed over the past two years as Facebook has made it harder for brands to reach fans through their news feeds, meaning they have to use paid ads through the platform to reach their target audiences. Along with promoted tweets and advertising on Instagram, social media is being transformed into a paid media platform, rather than the free PR opportunity it once was.
Mr Coleman says many of his clients spend £1 million a year on social, including media spend and creating high-quality content. Some businesses may baulk at such costs. But it should be remembered that social media is about more than broadcast advertising, it is also a way for customers to get in touch with a company, and make their complaints and queries widely known.
Resistance to getting involved with social media is particularly marked in the world of business-to-business (B2B) brands. Candace Kuss, director of social media at PR agency Hill & Knowlton, concedes that many B2B companies have not leapt at the opportunity to create a social strategy, though says some of her clients are doing strong work in this area.
Norway’s Statoil created a successful LinkedIn page to highlight its thought leadership on energy innovation issues and has attracted 21,000 global influencers. “For B2B especially, I think we will see a renaissance of the company blog as an owned social hub and white papers blossoming as interactive, dynamic data visualisations,” she says.
A company that has made great use of social media for B2B communications is delivery service UPS. As Matt Guffey, UPS director of marketing for UK, Ireland and Nordics, explains: “Customers can and do use social media to tell their friends and contacts about their experience with UPS, and to contact us directly. This is an opportunity.” He adds that the company uses social media to show how logistics can help companies grow, using LinkedIn to build its thought leadership.
Despite social media’s worldwide popularity, many companies rarely discuss it in the boardroom and few chief executives outside the world of technology get involved with communicating via social platforms.
But there are lessons to be learnt from active social media bosses. As LinkedIn’s senior director of marketing solutions for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Josh Graff says: “Chief executives who were once convinced that social media wasn’t worth their time, now consider participation in these networks as essential to their business.” Sir Richard Branson is a prolific tweeter with 5.3 million followers. Air Asia boss and Queen’s Park Rangers chairman Tony Fernandes used Twitter powerfully when an Air Asia plane went missing last year, briefing the media and customers about developments through his Twitter feed.
At Pret A Manger, chief executive Mr Schlee has just started writing his own blog which he tweets out. As Pret’s Ms Monro explains: “I suggested the idea of him – starting a Twitter account – because it seems like a really natural thing for him to do. It took a bit of persuading and training, but he’s really enjoying engaging in one-to-one conversations.”
As social media forces companies to become more accountable, chief executives are under increasing pressure to join the conversation and engage directly with their customers
SOCIAL MEDIA FAILS
Is it any wonder brands are scared to go on social media given the scrapes that many have got into on Twitter and Facebook? Social media has the power to damage corporate reputations, though the injuries are often self-inflicted.
Ignoring customer complaints is a common failing, as is getting angry with customers
Take publisher Penguin, which created a Twitter hashtag #YourMum and asked users to post the names of books their mothers would like to receive for Mother’s Day 2015. They seemed unaware that “your mum” is a common playground insult. The hashtag inspired childish “your mum” jokes from Twitter users. “#YourMum – she can easily be seen from Antarctica,” went one of the tweets and there were plenty more unsuitable for publication.
Digital agency Possible has compiled a comprehensive list of social media fails over the past few years and groups these into five areas. Ignoring customer complaints is a common failing, as is getting angry with customers. Allowing accounts to be hacked, leaving accounts open to abuse and “posting before you think” are among the most common mistakes.
An amusing example of this was the hashtag #Waitrosereasons, asking Twitter users to finish off the sentence “I shop at Waitrose because…” This elicited much derision on Twitter, where internet wags ridiculed the store for its high prices and rich customers, with lines such as it being the best place to pick up unicorn food and gold toilet paper thread. One post read: “I shop at Waitrose because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people.”
Sheer ignorance can also get a brand into hot water on social media. After the United States beat Ghana 2-1 at football in last year’s World Cup, Delta Airlines tweeted a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a “2” on it and a picture of a giraffe, to denote Ghana, with a “1” on it. The only problem was that there are no giraffes in Ghana, leaving Delta looking like it needed a geography lesson.
Earlier this month, Lord Sugar seemed to open himself up to ridicule with a post asking Twitter users to suggest a name for his new book. They came up with all sorts of facetious suggestions, including “All fired up”, “From my side of the finger”, “Now 99p” and “Katie Hopkins – it’s all my fault”.