Customer Management Debates for 2012: What Exactly is the Point of Social Media?

Brian Cantor

As we prepare for 2012, Call Center IQ wants to encourage its members to debate and discuss some of the hot, controversial topics in customer management and marketing. Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts.

Earlier this year, Call Center IQ released an article that would turn out to be one of its most popular of the year, "UFC, WWE Wrestle with Twitter: Does Social Media Make Your Brand Less Special?" The article’s intent was not necessarily to criticize the popular combat sports brands for their excessive interest in social media marketing; rather, it was to understand why, despite that immense level of support for the medium, neither brand has been able to trace a significant financial return to networks like Facebook and Twitter.

They, nonetheless, continue to celebrate their social presences—WWE television now features what critics call an "annoying" level of references to its Twitter accounts, while UFC President Dana White called Twitter the greatest marketing tool ever in an interview with Tech Crunch. And the recognition is not only internal; WWE recently won a full mantle’s worth of Mashable Awards for its social excellence, while the aforementioned Tech Crunch gushed over the WWE and UFC social strategies and, in one of the more controversial points, suggested the vastly-more-popular NFL can learn a thing or two from the niche brands.

This sort of disparity is not limited to sports or entertainment. I attended a presentation earlier this year in which a customer service director from a consumer products spent at least ten minutes bragging about how much better his company is than its biggest competitor at social media—and how his company has more Facebook fans by many multiples. Interestingly, that competitor garners more annual revenue by many multiples. So who’s laughing last?

These types of examples—and there are countless out there across just about every industry—hammer home an important question: what exactly is the true purpose of social media? CMIQ advisor Joakim Nilsson wrote a very insightful article about what differentiates companies that are good at social from those who are bad, particularly fleshing out why those who concentrate solely on revenue could be setting themselves up for failure. But not even Nilsson’s analysis is enough to put the issue to bed.

For starters, in some of the aforementioned examples, a lot of the "socially-relevant" metrics and practices would not matter—a company like UFC is primarily using Twitter as a marketing tool to promote its athletes, its products and its overall brand. It is not providing any sort of widespread customer service, and it does not engage in complaint management the way a retailer or manufacturer would. And so if it is taking on a "marketing" view of social media, why would a failure to convert new customers, as measured by higher regular TV ratings and more pay-per-view buys, be drowned in a shower of praise?

Granted, it is not as if those who approach social media as an engagement tool should be ignoring revenue (if developing better relationships with customers does not leave some sort of positive business footprint, we may have to question the very notion of customer management), but those concerned with the breadth of their social presence particularly cannot ignore conversions. When someone boasts about trending all the time on Twitter or having 85 million Facebook fans, it is not improper to ask him how many of those conversations and users have been converted into purchases and purchasers. If I, on behalf of a corporation, cannot show some sort of return on the Facebook fans and Twitter followers I acquire, then why should I ever concern myself with those metrics? And if conversion is not to be had, should I direct any noteworthy social investment towards the acquisition of new customers or up-selling/cross-selling of existing ones?

None of this questioning is intended to repudiate the very nature of social media; as a very inexpensive, limitless tool for reaching new customers and engaging old ones, it is impossible to dispute its relevance as a customer management (and business) tool. From furthering relationships with customers, to controlling brand reputation to gaining unparalleled, candid customer insights that can provide immensely relevant information for all wings of the business, virtually all companies can gain a lot from "being social."

At the same time, as 2012 approaches, it is important to consider how to really identify and measure the ultimate impact on the business. If we expect call centers to bring positive value to the business and we expect traditional channel marketing campaigns to grow our customer base, why does social get a free pass?

It is not uncommon for social "experts" to dismiss those who look at metrics like revenue, market share and conversion rate as "not getting it" and "out of touch" with new media. And, true, many might be approaching social too one-dimensionally.

But at some point, companies will be expecting their social strategists to "show their work" and identify the success. And if factors like revenue and protection or growth of the customer base should not matter, what should? If a brand’s television ratings go down, its ecommerce sales fall or its amount of new subscribers shrinks, what other metrics can be used to prove that the social endeavor was still a success?

What, Call Center IQ readers, should be the purpose of social media when employed as a brand and/or greater corporate strategy? Can it be all about marketing and brand awareness--or does it have to be a multi-dimenstional "customer" strategy? And when can an organization call its social strategy successful?

All thoughts are welcome – share in the comment section below: