The Yellow Brick Road To Social Media Maturity
A look at how organizations evolve within the social web.
by Marcel Lebrun, CEO of Radian6
I was speaking with a business owner who sells specialty food products online. His current marketing
investments are very traditional: ads in newspapers and radio. He was telling me that he didn’t feel
that his ad investment was accomplishing anything, and he had no data to tell him otherwise. He
believed (strongly) that social media and the internet was a better place to invest his marketing
budget, but didn’t know how or where to start.
“Should I start a blog, buy some banner or Google Ads, streamline my online order process, create
a Facebook group - or what?” he asked, overwhelmed.
How does a brand or company get started in using social media? Here is the picture I ended up
drawing on the back of the napkin.
Level 0 - Ignoring
The lowest level in the social media maturity continuum is still a common one: level 0 (Ignoring).
There are companies who have not yet recognized that the social web is teeming with life, and that
their customers are actively talking about them online. Other brands have reached the conclusion
that the social web is very important, but they don’t know how to begin. In addition, the fear of
negative feedback or criticism prevents many businesses from venturing into the social web at all.
Shel Israel, as part of the research for his book Twitterville, wrote an excellent synopsis in this post
about Uhaul. At the moment, U-Haul is as an example of a company that is currently struggling
as a resident of Level 0 of the social media maturity continuum. They’re in the unenviable position
of many other companies: starting their forays into social media as the direct result of a crisis or
negative PR online. Unfortunately, pain is sometimes a more effective motivator than opportunity.
Level 1 - Listening
Listening is the foundational discipline of social media maturity. Too many companies begin their
participation in social media by creating a blog, mostly because they hear that’s what they’re Supposed
To Do. Then, they’ll use that blog to inadvertently carry over their traditional marketing approaches to
the social web. In essence, that means that rather than being conversational, they simply push the
same broadcast marketing messages that they’re publishing through more one-way mechanisms
like advertising, direct mail, or promotional marketing. But the social web is fundamentally different;
consumers interacting online with companies expect to be conversed with not shouted to. They’re
asking for a dialogue, opportunities to engage and respond to brands, and demonstration that the
business is there for a two-way, long term presence. In short, most traditional marketing approaches
will not resonate in social media.
By “Listening”, I mean that companies should start by monitoring and analyzing what is being said
online about their brand. Your overall brand perception is reflected in the sum of conversations
about you, regardless of how carefully you craft your messaging. A brand is ultimately not what a
marketing or PR message says it is, but is a combination of all the things said by its community -
fans, customers, detractors, and critics alike.
How To Listen
It is important to listen broadly – in two ways. First, you need to make sure that you are monitoring
all the important sources of conversation where your customers are engaged. This includes blogs,
forums & message boards, video sharing communities like YouTube, social networking sites like
MySpace, Facebook and Linkedin, as well as important emerging conversational tools like Twitter.
You can do this manually by searching and aggregating all the individual sources and relevant posts,
or with a professional social media monitoring (or listening) tool.
Secondly, you need to listen to all types of conversations that might be relevant to your business.
The obvious starting point is to track specific and direct mentions of your brand, products and key
employees. But you can gain valuable insights into opportunities for your company by monitoring
your competitors and your industry at large. For example, if your brand is Tylenol, you could start by
monitoring “Motrin”, “Bayer” and “Tylenol” to understand specific product conversations. But there’s
great value in listening to the broader conversation about headache remedies, or back pain, or
whatever larger segment of the industry you’d like your brand to represent.
What To Listen For
Listening holistically includes observing several aspects related to your brand. Initially, monitoring
direct brand perceptions (what customers like or don’t like about Tylenol) is key to understanding
how your specific product or service is being discussed. That includes compliments, complaints,
suggestions for improvements, or insights into how your customers are using your product. Then,
broaden your monitoring to include industry issues and ideas (what customers are discussing
relative to headache remedies), as well as which communities online are generating the most active
discussions about both your brand and your industry. As you observe, you’ll also be able to identify
influential voices in your community, and where the concentrations of your fans and advocates are
across the web.
Listening is not just a one–time activity or something you do as a quarterly report to get a “snapshot”.
It is an important ongoing discipline upon which your communications, customer service, business
development and product research initiatives can and should be rooted. Much like the roots of a
tree, listening forms the foundation of a strong social media system, and feeds all of the other brand-
related initiatives that stem from it.
Level 2 – Responding
While a brand can start by passively listening, doing so will quickly compel you to engage and
respond to your community.
The social web is new, but the communication it initiates is not. If a customer or prospect called
your company with a question, compliment, or complaint, you’d answer the call, right? You certainly
wouldn’t put them on hold, or ignore the call altogether. Today, those same calls are coming in
through new channels in social media. The mechanisms may be different and even unfamiliar, but
the “calls” coming through online channels are every bit as important to your company as telephone
calls or emails. In fact, you might argue that - given the public and fast-moving nature of the web -
these conversations warrant quick and targeted attention.
Certainly there are new complexities that arise because of social media. Questions regarding
communication guidelines, legal liabilities and information disclosure, scaling and accommodating
these new media. But as with any new business initiative, the challenges of social media shouldn’t
be used as excuses to avoid taking action. The social web is the new phone. A multi-purpose
communications medium. Customers are calling, and businesses will need to answer.
The most straightforward way to start the discipline of responding is by first engaging with people
who directly mention your company or product. Answer direct questions. Say thank you when a
customer recommends your product to another or compliments what you’re doing. Respond to
issues online with the same level of customer service and responsiveness you would provide any
Learning how to effectively comment on blogs, twitter, and other social platforms is a process
and you’ll make mistakes along the way. Always be transparent and positive. Apologize when
you misstep, and be open to hearing feedback and correcting issues publicly and without being
defensive. Feel free to invite customers to connect with you to further the conversation offline if
appropriate. The social media community doesn’t expect you to be perfect. They just expect you to
be engaged, responsive, and human.
As you grow in this practice, you will recognize that this new communications medium touches
several business processes in your company. Your PR people will use it to build relationships with
influencers & journalists. Your customer service people will use it to resolve customer service issues
on the spot, or route them to the appropriate internal contacts, keeping customers happy. Your sales
people will use it to identify leads by listening for the point of need and offering help, information, and
solutions to potential customers. Your product and research teams will even use what they learn to
improve products, stay abreast of competitive offerings, or even spur innovation for new products
Dell and Comcast and two great examples of companies that excel at both listening and responding.
Quickly examine Frank Eliason’s twitter stream (@comcastcares) and you will see outstanding
customer service in action. To most customers, this type of service is remarkable, as evidenced by
customer reactions and the positive comments they leave across the web about Frank’s outreach.
Responding and listening work hand in hand to strengthen the overall social media presence of a
brand. Together, these two disciplines move brands from passive observers or one-way broadcasters
to two-way, active participants in the dialogue about their brand.
Do listening and responding scale for larger organizations? Absolutely – like any other business
function you need the right workflow capabilities and resources to support the process. You equip your
customer service, communications, and sales teams with the tools they need to communicate both
internally and externally about their work. To integrate social media effectively across an enterprise,
you can build a complete listening and engagement grid for your company: assign conversations
to specific teams, collaborate on responses, track activity, measure outreach costs, and ultimately
calculate the ROI of your social media efforts.
Level 3 – Participating
The next level in the social media maturity continuum involves participation in broader industry
conversations that do not necessarily mention your brand. This is where your company has the
opportunity to build relationships with the community of influencers and demonstrate thought
leadership in your marketplace. Does your company have experts who have credibility and great
ideas to contribute to the industry? Enable and encourage them to participate in these broader
This is marketing by participation. It unmasks your brand: taking away the carefully crafted facade of
a “corporate message”, and adding personality, authenticity, and humanity to your communication.
People like to do business with other people. But somehow, the advent of mass marketing moved
many talented, engaging people and important business functions behind a curtain called “the field”
such that they rarely speak or connect with customers. Social media brings back the practice of
having several visible and active ambassadors for your brand, connecting and communicating with
the people that drive your business.
Dell is the best example of a brand that embodies this type of participation. Dell’s spokespeople
don’t just talk about Dell all the time; they also participate in discussions about the things that
interest their customers. Meet John Blain (@dell_John_B). He is the Dell gaming guy. Yes, Dell does
make hardware that gamers use, but you will find John engaged in conversations that the gaming
community is interested in like this post where John reviews his favourite games from this past
year. Because of John, Dell has a strong voice in the gaming community and they are true insiders
because John is engaged, credible, and trusted.
Level 4 – Sharing Your Story
After you’ve effectively engaged and begun participating in existing communities online, it is time to
begin sharing a bit about who you are as a brand. Start a company blog or explore other platforms
to share your story. A brand’s own contributions will be well received and welcomed if its activities
are built on top of the foundation of listening, responding and participating. But telling your story is
not about driving impressions or repeatedly communicating your unique selling proposition. It about
letting people “in the tent” to see the people, ideas and passion that drives the company and its
vision. It is about revealing your brand’s personality.
Rohit Bargava describes this best when he says, “Companies can’t afford to be faceless anymore”.
If your company is intent on starting a blog, I emphatically prescribe Rohit’s book, Personality Not
Included, as a pre-requisite. You should also read Rohit’s blog and download his paper on how
to launch a successful blog.
Level 5 – Contributing
This level on the social media maturity continuum is founded upon listening for expressions of needs,
and then producing valuable, helpful content that people want because it meets those needs. Also
known as Content Marketing, it’s a compelling way to connect with your customers and prospects
at a level above your brand, and serve as a resource for people in and around your brand.
Using the Tylenol example again, they could create content that really helps back sufferers find
information about dealing with and treating their symptoms. They would first listen and understand
what is being discussed online about back pain. Using the conversation cloud below, you can see
the most mentioned topics associated with back pain that Tylenol might see:
As you can see, there is a lot of discussion about treatments, doctors, health problems and exercise.
So what if Tylenol decided to publish some helpful content called the “Tylenol Back Care Series”?
They might produce a series of articles with back care tips & exercises, and produce supporting
videos on YouTube demonstrating the proper way to do them. They might facilitate conversation and
community by asking for other suggestions from back pain sufferers.
Then through listening, responding and participating, company representatives could reach out
to people & communities where back pain is discussed and offer the resources. If the content is
truly valuable and high quality, it will generate positive word of mouth, propagate through a trusted
network of recommendations, and bring goodwill to Tylenol’s brand for connecting, responding, and
contributing to a greater need.
Does that sound too expensive? Give me the budget associated with a single television ad campaign
and let’s precisely measure which approach gets more people talking about Tylenol.
The important thing about contribution is a brand’s genuine desire to produce helpful content, not
just promotions. That’s why this step comes after listening, responding, participating and sharing:
authentic contribution is based upon all the principles from the previous levels and the habits &
values that are learned from these disciplines. Content marketing is not about producing “viral
videos”. Visibility alone doesn’t build brand advocacy. Compelling content serves a need, answers
a question, solves a problem, or contributes something of value to the community at large.
The social web is not without a set of community values. Like any community, these are learned
through observation and through dedicated, consistent social interactions. Successful brands in
social media learn the key community values of their customers and industry, and engage customers
and prospects according to those values. Each community has a culture of its own, and brands that
immerse themselves in that culture and conversation can become trusted and valuable members
In general, communities ask their members for awareness, transparency, authenticity, and
responsiveness. Listening is a key component to doing all of these well; only through listening
carefully can brands truly understand how best to participate in and engage with the members of
the communities they’re a part of. People want to clearly know that the brands they’re interacting are
honest, personable, and real - not just a logo and a tagline.
Don’t let the word “social” fool you. A brand’s participation in the social web should be very intentional
with clear business objectives, resources, initiatives, and investments. This requires measurement in
order to understand the cost of achieving your objectives and the effectiveness of your investments.
The good news is that the social web provides more metrics than any other medium that marketers
have had to work with previously. For more on this topic, read Why Social Media Measurement
is Like Gourmet Cooking.
Building Community, Relationships, and Advocacy
Every company starts out on the yellow brick road for a different reason. The lion wanted courage;
the tin man wanted a heart. Some brands get involved initially in response to a PR disaster. Others
might initially see it as a cost effective way to gather unsolicited customer opinions. As a new multi-
purpose communications medium, like the telephone, social media will eventually impact every
business function in your company.
Whatever the starting place, companies that do follow the yellow brick road will find that they have
built higher quality relationships with their customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Good
relationships are critical to business and will result in the most valuable brand equity of all – customer
advocacy and positive word of mouth.
That’s what we’re here for.
Stepping into social media is an exciting but very important step for your business. Bridging
brands between their offline and online existence is more important than ever before.
Your time is limited, but relationships are always a good investment. Radian6 can help you
lay a strong foundation for social media strategy with a comprehensive listening, monitoring
and engagement platform, and the expertise to deploy it well. Questions, comments, or
feedback for us? Just let us know.
Find us on the web: http://www.radian6.com
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Read the Blog: http://www.radian6.com/blog
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