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There’s an old saying that carries renewed meaning these days: Give the people what they want. Brands are furiously creating profiles in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in the hopes of building engaging communities with customers and giving people what the brands think they want. The main activity in this effort is to spur consumers to “like” and “follow” a brand’s Facebook and Twitter streams. But are these companies developing effective campaigns to build engagement and give the people what they want? From where I sit, I’d say many are not. If businesses are unable to change course, a very real — and likely very painful — lesson lies ahead. Once-willing consumers will soon become reluctant to connect with brands or will completely sever social ties to brands once they deem the connection fruitless.

Not long ago, I attended a daylong social marketing summit at the campus of a leading national brand that also housed a number of popular sub brands. Following my presentation, I returned to my seat to take in a presentation from a sales rep for Facebook. He talked about why brands will benefit from setting up shop in Facebook — consumers are willing to engage with brands that make it worth their while. But somewhere in the middle of his presentation, however, I was jolted into a state of disbelief. The rep looked upon the audience of brand managers with genuine sincerity and in a calming voice expressed, “Don’t over-think any of this. It’s not that complicated. Do four things every week…ask a question, run a poll, share links, and engage with your fans. Oh, and have fun!”

It’s not that this advice isn’t helpful. But it is exactly the type of counsel that contributes to the phenomenon of social “stream fatigue.” More and more people in social networks will begin realizing that they hold control of their social streams and can simply unlike or unfollow brands that don’t deliver value.

It’s time for brands to rethink their approach in social media

Everything begins with providing a reason for consumers to connect with brands in social networks, not once, but now and over time, again and again. Brands must study consumer preferences in advance of social efforts and continually monitor what consumers expect and want in this channel. Effective brand engagement is directly linked to the value customers take away from the branded social experience and how closely their expectations and desires are met.

To help understand the contours of this situation, marketing firm Exact Target set out to understand what it is that customers want in social relationships. This valuable information can only help brands design experiences that meet or exceed needs and expectations. In its study appropriately titled “The Social Break-up,” (registration required to download survey) 55-percent of Facebook users reported liking a brand and then later deciding they no longer wish to see the company’s posts. Half of fans say that they really aren’t even fans as they don’t visit the page or web site after the “Like.” Seventy-one percent of consumers say that they’re now becoming more selective about the brands they like.

When asked why consumers were breaking-up with brands in Facebook and Twitter, the top reasons cited were:

• The company posts too frequently
• My wall was becoming too crowded with marketing posts
• The content was too repetitive or boring

In the previous three points, we learn what not to do. When customers were asked why they unliked brands, we get a better idea for what to do next  (interpreted):

• I only “Liked” the company to take advantage of an offer
• Brands didn’t offer enough special offers or deals over time to make it worth my while
• Their posts were too promotional without the ability to take action against them within the stream

It comes back to intention and value. Customers are yearning for a more useful or meaningful connection and for the most part, brands are missing the opportunity to truly engage. The ExactTarget data highlights the need for brands to move away from posting marketing or promotional content or repeatedly diluting streams with boring posts. These acts will only drive customers away from social engagement. Instead, by providing special offers and more useful, actionable or engaging updates, customers will find value in preserving the connection.

IBM also conducted a study that asked consumers what they expected from brand engagement in social media. As part of its research, IBM asked business leaders what they thought consumers were seeking in a social relationship. The results identified a dramatic gap between presumption and actual demand.

The top two reasons consumers gave as to why they interact with companies in social networks were:

1. Receive discounts (61%)
2. Make purchases (55%)

In contrast, businesses believe that the top two reasons consumers follow them in social networks are…

1. Learn about new products (73%)
2. To receive general information (71%)

While consumers expressed the desire to receive discounts or make purchases as the top reasons for engagement in social media, businesses view these actions as the lowest two motives for connecting in the social web.

What we learn from these two studies is that it’s not about the content, the profile, or publishing information regularly; it’s about understanding and delivering what customers want.

If you’re not sure what customers want…ask!

Ask and ye shall receive. You’ve heard it a million times, but are businesses actually practicing what they preach? To bridge the gap between consumer expectations and business perceptions, asking customers what they want can go a long way. For example, when Google’s much discussed new social network launched, two major brands were front and center hoping to deliver a unique, value add experience. Ford Motor Company was one of the first companies to build a brand page and in an notable move, asked people what they expected from the company in Google+. Ford’s Scott Monty and team took the scores of feedback to a dedicated engagement and content strategy.  Shortly thereafter, Michael Dell personally asked his circles about the roll Google Hangouts, a group chat service in Google+, can play in customer service.

Image: Courtesy of author blog

“I am thinking about hangouts for business. Would you like to be able to connect with you Dell service and sale teams via video directly from Dell.com?”

Over 800 people responded and seemed to genuinely support the idea. Simply asking people what they want from the social media is the first step a business can take in bridging the consumer gap.

The reality is that customers can and will cut ties with brands that do not take their best interests into account. Consumers are realizing that they have the power to reduce or eliminate stream fatigue by tailoring the relationships they maintain in each network.

In order to redesign social programs to deliver value to customers and avoid getting culled from a social stream, businesses will need a better understanding of consumer wants and expectations. Asking them what they want is a good start. This can be done through surveys, customer service prompts or other creative means that may already be in place. The answers will reveal the ingredients necessary to design a relevant and valuable social media formula. In every strategy moving forward, businesses must also integrate feedback loops to learn how programs are performing and how best to improve them over time. Whether social media is a combination of discounts or special promotions, thought leadership, social commerce, or entertainment, customers should drive the elements of companies’ social media design. This is the way to better engage customers by giving them, the audience, what they want.

The End of Business as Usual will be available in the coming weeks. You can pre-order now at Amazon | Barnes and Noble | 800CEOREAD.

Part One – Digital Darwinism, Who’s Next