With the transition from ‘shouting’ to ‘talking’, we see a conceptual shift in the way that brands communicate with their audience.
In my day job I get to see both sides of the fence – new service concepts that businesses are testing out, and the customer reaction to these new ways of interacting. Although there’s a lot of discussion around the B2C and B2B use of social platforms like Facebook, I see a number of recurring misconceptions around how social can and should be applied. This has an impact on the effectiveness of social media integration into sales, marketing and customer service functions, and ultimately the degree to which brands achieve a differentiated customer experience.
In this post I will explore the idea that insightful parallels can be drawn between human development and the development of effective users of social media in a business context. I propose that treating the development of social media use in this way can form a starting point for companies to learn how to think, act and ‘speak’ online.
What follows is a simple framework based around five stages of development that can be viewed through distinct personas: Discoverers, Communicators, Individuals, Independents and Elders. The first two are adapted from personas created by Hanen*, and the final three extend the same logic. I should emphasise this line of thinking is in the main born of my own observations as opposed to the output of any formal research.
*Hanen is a Canadian company that describes itself as “an innovator in family focused early language intervention”. In their parent guidebook ‘It Takes Two to Talk’ they divide early communication and language development into a number of personas – the first two are ‘Discoverers’ and ‘Communicators’.
Discoverers “react to how they feel and to what is happening around them, but have not yet developed the ability to communicate with a specific purpose in mind.” (Hanen)
In the context of social business a Discoverer is taking their very first steps into online communication, but does not have the ability to leverage social media to effect any meaningful change in how their audience views or interacts with their brand. To move forward from this stage, discoverers need to start thinking more clearly about what they are trying to achieve by utilising social media – in other words the ‘why’ needs to come before the ‘how’.
In truth, few companies have moved their workforce beyond the Discoverer stage. Intel, for example, provides these social media guidelines and has made positive steps toward empowering the individual, a key part of the overall process. However the ‘mature’ use of social remains limited to the brand team and as yet has not visibly branched out to operations or customer service.
Communicators begin “to send messages with a specific purpose in mind” (Hanen). The Communicator knows what they want to achieve but they are very much in the learning phase in terms of knowing how to do it.
There are still many unknowns in the effective use of social, even for some of the world’s top brands. This is a particular issue as the dialogue moves on from purely brand marketing and promotional activity to customer services and operations. An example here is the use of Facebook as a customer service channel.
Although brands can advertise on Facebook, and people can choose to comment on brand pages, Facebook is still fundamentally a very personal experience, and the evidence I have seen shows that talking to a customer service rep through Facebook is not a channel that consumers accept.
Facebook is a platform for talking to your friends, and people only want to communicate with brands through Facebook for certain types of interaction. Using a platform in the wrong context is indicative of a lack of self-awareness or ‘self-concept’. To grow beyond this, organisational actors need to become more sophisticated in terms of grasping the implications of user context and brand perception.
To move on from Hanen’s view of early stage development, let’s look at how people within organisations can move from being Communicators to achieving a state of self-awareness, and ultimately having a professional identity online that supports organisational objectives.
‘Identity represents a coherent sense of self, stable across circumstances and including past experiences and future goals. Everyone has a self-concept, whereas not everyone fully achieves identity’ (paraphrased from Erik Eriksson).
In terms of cognitive development, the process of attaining self-awareness and a sense of identity is synonymous with the adolescent phase. Here a more subtle and intuitive grasp of social situations and context begins to inform action and behaviour. The savvier players in the market know when and when not to ‘speak’ and are getting better at judging which channels and platforms are better for different types of messaging.
Key to this is the understanding of when and where in a user’s online life it is appropriate to engage them. To frame this within the argument around the development of social brands, I feel this is the most advanced stage of collective development that has been achieved by any organisation so far.
The Independents typically have a more stable sense of identity than Individuals, displaying the qualities of self-sufficiency and responsibility. In terms of people within organisations who utilise social and online communications to help facilitate a dialogue, these people work within a specific functional area, and use their broad knowledge of mediated communication**, in part learnt from their personal use of social media, to refine the way their organisation interacts with their audience.
This is the stage where organisational actors really begin to get results and can consciously reinforce brand messaging and influence audience perception. In the organisational context, Independents are not the norm but have been specifically recruited for their experience in applying mediated communication in the pursuit of organisational goals.
The limitation of the Independent is that they are conditioned to a particular environment, audience and mode of communication. If they face an unexpected or new situation, their specialised knowledge base does not lend itself to adaptation. This is a significant problem in an increasingly cross-channel and cross-functional environment of constant technological change.
Wisdom can be seen as ‘a deep understanding and realisation of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgments and actions in keeping with this understanding.’
For brands, a state of wisdom is an aspirational if not abstract goal. To a large extent this owes to the fact that wisdom lives within people themselves, not organisations. I feel though that this is both the root of the problem and the solution. A ‘deep understanding and realisation’ is an experience that resides within the individual, therefore the onus is on organisations to help individuals to achieve this experience, with the collective output being the ability at the brand level to appropriately apply ‘perceptions, judgments and actions’.
The distinction between the Independent and the Elder is that the Elder quickly sees through to the user context, and makes an intuitive connection between context and mode of interaction. This ‘penetrating insight’ means the elder is not so bound by functional area, but is adept at effectively engaging an audience in a dialogue irrespective of subject.
Let’s return to the example of extending a brand’s social presence to encompass operational and customer service activities. Common sense tells us this is a very different type of environment to one of brand marketing and promotion, and that if the logic holds true that engaging customers should be in the right place at the right time, there will naturally be a different place and time for complaints and questions as there will be for competitions and campaign messaging.
For organisations to realise the potential of the social brand, there needs to be a shift of thinking toward a more subtle approach to brand/ audience interaction. As the subtlety and complexity of human interaction online becomes a growing influence on the success of business strategy, organisations must take a leadership role in developing people with a deep understanding of mediated communication and user context.
To ensure the use of mediated communication in B2C and B2B interactions has a positive effect on the customer experience, businesses should make a deeper commitment to the development of the individual as a ‘digital communicator,’ and form an explicit appreciation of individual development as a tiered process from discovery to wisdom.
**For further reading around mediated communication and the implications of the online context for human interaction, see ‘Personal Connections in the Digital Age’ by Nancy Baym.