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The 5th Revolution in Mass Communications

What made Martha’s school council—irritated with bad school lunch reviews and subsequent bad press—think it could get away with simply shutting her down? I believe the council thought it could get away with it because that’s the way things have always been—people and organizations have always gotten away with these types of power plays. The power has always rested with school councils, governments, corporations, police departments, and the like—telling you what to think, buy, and do.

But social media has enabled a momentous shift in the balance of power, and this type of democratization will only continue. The council failed to realize that social media is the great enabler of broadcasting thoughts, ideas, and even dissent, which has shifted much of the power from the few to the many. And what it especially didn’t realize was that its decision to censor Martha would cause what is referred to as the Streisand Effect, where attempts to cover up or otherwise censor information can backfire and end up publicizing the information more broadly (named after American singer and actor Barbara Streisand, who tried to quash publicity and photos of her Malibu home, which resulted in far greater publicity of it5).

The widespread use of social media is the driving force behind fundamental changes taking place in business and society—from school lunch programs, to enterprise go-to-market strategies, and even terrorist recruiting tactics.6 Internet technology thought-leader Clay Shirky writes, “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race.”

That’s a big statement. After all, it’s a reasonable assertion that only four innovations in the history of humans have truly revolutionized communications: 1) the printing press as the first true mass communications device, 2) the telegraph and telephone for “pigeon-less” two-way long-distance communications, 3) the capture of images and sound, and 4) the ability to send images and sound through the air in the form of radio and TV.7

And although these innovations are nothing short of revolutionary, Clay Shirky points out that there has always been something of a disconnect. The technologies that enable mass communication—print, television, and so on—simply do not work for conversations, and the technologies that are good for conversations—telephone and telegraph—do not work for mass communication.

For example, if you wanted to talk to someone other than your neighbor, start tapping out your Morse code or start cranking the telephone dial to reach an operator. If you wanted to get your message out to a large audience, you better know someone with access to a printing press.

Internet and social technologies are truly revolutionary because they bridge the gaps of these disconnects, enabling everyday people to effortlessly connect and share with vast audiences. What’s more, as Shirky points out, is that as traditional media and modalities move onto the web, the web itself becomes the all-inclusive platform for all types of media—photos, sound, TV, movies, and print. Even phone calls have migrated to the web, and not only can audiences consume this information, they can also interact with it, share it, rate it, and talk about it.

But more important, so much more than the technologies themselves have changed. Perceptions about who to trust, and how and where to access information have changed. We are no longer in the broadcast era in which companies and governments urge you to sit back and listen; communications have shifted from static one-sided messages to dynamic social interactions, creating challenges for some business leaders and opportunities for others.

Until recently, most content and information was produced and controlled by companies, news organizations, governments, and similar entities. Those days are gone forever—today, everyone has their own microphone, film studio, and printing press connected to vast social networks. In Can’t Buy Me Like, authors Garfield and Levy state, “Once, corporations and brands could operate behind nearly impregnable fortifications. Now there is hardly an event that takes place—especially an ugly one—that doesn’t become exposed to one and all, immediately and in perpetuity.” Everyone online should be looked at not as a submissive consumer of content, but like Martha, quite possibly a producer and promoter of content as well. As business leaders, it’s up to us to understand—and capitalize on—these new dynamics.

Adapting to the Inevitable

In the new era of social, business leaders might feel conflicted between staying the course with traditional marketing and customer care strategies that might not feel like they’re pulling quite like they used to, or jumping on the social media bandwagon, where business outcomes might appear soft, return-on-investment (ROI) elusive, and control seems to slip away.

Love it or hate it, our staff and customers are living and breathing social in every day. But we shouldn’t get too wrapped up with Facebook vs. Twitter. From my perspective, although the technology du jour can be interesting, it’s often the least interesting component of what makes social media interesting for business. That said, technological innovations that inspire pervasive connectivity will continue to evolve at a frantic pace. It’s that inevitability (and subsequent changes in people’s behavior and expectations) that we must adapt to.

Take “The Internet of Things,” which quite simply refers to embedding web-accessible devices in “things” like climate control units, drones, and surveillance systems. This rapidly evolving technology spawned from simple RFID tagging for routing and inventory management circa 2000, to today, where we have the ability to monitor and control everything from home appliances to building facilities via the web.

Although a fridge that reminds you to pick up some more rice milk when your watch tells it you are at the store might seem far off, according to Gartner Research, there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020,8 and in a recent study by Pew Research Internet Project, 83 percent of technology executives agree that in the Internet of Things, embedded and wearable computing will have widespread impacts by 2025.9

We know that technologies and online behavior will continue to become more and more social. We also know that innovations that connect everything to everyone will continue to the point that they become ubiquitous—even taken for granted—by society. The most compelling argument for leaning into the era of social business doesn’t come from weighing pros and cons, but rather, an unwavering acknowledgment that social technologies, behaviors, and expectations are here to stay. The question for business leaders then becomes, “How can we adapt the nuances of our business to the opportunities—and inevitability—of social?”

Social Business Requires a Change of Mindset

Social business can be difficult for some companies to embrace because it fundamentally changes time-honored approaches to marketing, customer care, voice of the customer, and other company functions.

Twenty years ago, companies started hiding behind automated “Interactive Voice Response” phone systems and obscured company contact information with the goal of reducing the amount of customer contact, and therefore, their operational costs. Back then, most executives viewed the support center as a cost center, not a driver of value and loyalty. These efficiency-only plays have created much customer dissatisfaction over the years, but it was only through the widespread adoption of social media that forward-looking executives actually started to pay attention—considering the dangerous potential for customers airing their frustrations in a very public way, as well as the benefits associated with driving more loyalty through value-laden personal interactions.

“It’s always been about the individualized relationship,” says Scott Olrich, chief marketing officer of Responsys, in Can’t Buy Me Like. “A century or so back, the local corner shop lived or died based on the relationships they built.... As new means of mass communications emerged, companies used their increased reach to try to advertise their way out of that responsibility. But today every aspect of the company’s behavior is on public display. A relationship-first approach to every customer interaction has again become that imperative.”10

If you’re considering a move into (or further into) social business, a fundamental shift in corporate mindset needs to occur. This is not a question of Twitter versus Instagram, but a shift away from traditional broadcast-era marketing campaigns and efficiency-only customer care strategies to those that nurture individual relationships.

Take Zappos as an example. This is a company whose gross sales went from $1.6 million in 2000 to $1 billion in 200811—a change of 499,900 percent over 8 years—with virtually no advertising budget.12 In Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, CEO Tony Hsieh illustrates that the number-one driver of growth at Zappos is repeat customers and word of mouth. One of the primary drivers of success was the diversion of the majority of its advertising dollars into progressive, relationship-oriented customer experience and customer care strategies, such as free shipping both ways and a 365-day return policy. Interestingly, Hsieh considers these not as a cost of sale, but a cost of marketing—that’s right: great service as marketing.

What’s more, Zappos’ customer care center is staffed 24/7 with reps who are genuinely thrilled to talk with you, and in contrast to some companies’ actions to obfuscate customer interaction behind IVF systems or several layers deep on the website, Zappos actively promotes the accessibility of these reps—the customer service phone number is displayed prominently on the top of every web page. Why? Because Hsieh considers it an opportunity to engage customers, “You have the customer’s undivided attention for five to 10 minutes, and if you get the interaction right, what we’ve found is that the customer remembers the experience for a very long time and tells his or her friends about it.”

“Too many companies think of their call centers as an expense to minimize,” says Hsieh. “We believe that it’s a huge untapped opportunity for most companies, not only because it can result in word-of-mouth marketing, but because of its potential to increase the lifetime value of the customer.”

But Hsieh’s enlightened customer experience mindset doesn’t end there. Hsieh encourages staff at all levels to use social media to put a human face on Zappos, deemphasizing technology, while emphasizing authenticity and casual exchanges. Zappos has four primary channels:

  • Twitter: In an effort to humanize the Zappos experience, the staff is encouraged to engage in a casual manner rather than simply promote products or the brand. Hsieh also encourages customers on Twitter to not only give positive feedback, but also negative feedback as well.13 And unlike some of the brands who close their eyes to the importance of online responsiveness, try mentioning Zappos in a tweet directly or indirectly. You may be pleasantly surprised.
  • Facebook: With nearly 2 million likes, you might expect Zappos’ direct customer interaction to be lost among the multitude. Quite the contrary. In a recent visit, I couldn’t find a customer comment that was not responded to by Zappos, and the sharing of valuable content, contests, resources, and simple observations is just as prevalent as answering customer inquiries.
  • YouTube: Zappos’ video content provides another means to connect with customers (and even potential employees) by putting a human face on the company. The videos showcase the Zappos work culture, behind the scenes clips, comedic employee skits, as well as customer contests, and many of their organic employee videos have gone viral among customers.
  • Blogs: Zappos blogs cover both timely corporate content from c-level executives, as well as customer-oriented blogs highlighting fashion products and trends.

Although it’s true that this shift in mindset involves thinking differently about how to leverage new forms of media, the fundamental transformation involves a willingness among staff and executives to take individual ownership to connect with customers, and the realization that frequent personal interactions create relationships, and it is essentially that which builds the foundation of social business.

That said, it’s critical to note that we can’t talk about the power of company/customer relationship building without realizing that every meaningful relationship with a customer begins with a meaningful company/employee relationship. Relationship building—and social business—starts at home.

If your company doesn’t have what it takes to be considered a “Best Place to Work,” you’re going to have a difficult time becoming a social business. Why? It takes internal advocates to build external advocates, and it takes enthusiasm emanating from within the brand to be evident outside the brand. This critical shift in mindset starts at the top. Executives looking to build a social business should begin by building employee pride and loyalty—the goal is to have your staff talking positively about you wherever it goes—from blogs to the ball park.

And although it’s true that Zappos gets plenty of kudos for what many consider to be an enlightened social media strategy, its positive social media outcomes have far more to do with the company’s culture of sharing, authenticity, and pride than a carefully orchestrated plan to leverage the latest technologies. Zappos’ success in social business is simply an off-shoot of its shift in corporate mindset; from efficiency plays to a culture of caring.

As mentioned previously, Zappos reps are thrilled to talk with you, 24/7—on the phone, via Twitter, and at a conference...you name it. This is not a coincidence. The company is considered by many to be the prototype for employee advocates, which CEO Tony Hsieh has championed as a part of what he calls his “Happiness Framework,”14 which has four components:

  • Control of skill development and earnings: Before they implemented the framework, reps were given raises once a year with no real control of how much they could earn or when they could earn the increases. The Happiness Framework is based on meritocracy, where reps can complete any number of 20 different skill set certifications, with potential pay increases attached to each. Hsieh has found that reps are much happier being in control of their own pay and skill development.
  • Frequent career advancement opportunities: Similar to the previous approach with earnings milestones, employees at Zappos were given promotions once every 18 months. The new framework accommodated more frequent intervals for promotion potential—every 6 months—which gives employees a regular sense of career advancement.
  • Togetherness: The company culture at Zappos is like a big Italian family. Employees are encouraged to speak their minds and help shape the culture; they are encouraged to attend company events and build relationships internally. This close-knit company culture has led to some of the most engaged employees in any industry.
  • Working for something bigger: Zappos knows that a company with a vision beyond profits engenders employee loyalty, and ironically, long-term success in the market (that is, profitability). Ask a Zappos employee what she likes about Zappos, and you’re likely to hear comments related to “company values,” and “cares about its people,” rather than, “doing great on Wall Street.”

Not many companies are as far along as Zappos for sustaining a deep culture of social business. However, we can all look inside our own organizations to identify Zappos-like moments where this type of culture might be evolving organically so that we can learn from them and cultivate more of the same.

Recently I experienced an organic Zappos-like moment at the company I currently work for, ServiceSource, and our team is considering creative ways to harness more of the same. In my role as strategic partner to the outside sales team, we hosted executives from a prospect company in our office in Nashville, TN, one of our global sales centers, to demonstrate the dynamics of our recurring revenue optimization software and managed services offerings. This particular prospect represented a large, multiyear partnership opportunity that was global in nature, and as such, we asked some of our top global executives to attend. The executive meetings were fruitful and the prospect was genuinely engaged but really wanted to “walk the floor” of the sales center and talk to the people who are the engines behind our offerings. I have to say that our passionate and knowledgeable “on the ground” employees were the real stars of the show, and the time that was spent with them understanding the ins-and-outs of our offerings in an authentic, transparent environment went a long way in establishing trust, building personal relationships, and in my opinion, helping to close an important partnership.

Another recent example is when ServiceSource marketing executives recognized both the pride and competitiveness inherent to our global sales centers, and developed a simple Chatter campaign called #MyOfficeRocks, where individuals from different centers would post why their home office is particularly cool, humorous, effective, or valuable to the community—basically, why their office is a great place to work—and win prizes for the most compelling examples. Figure 1.2 shows representatives from the Dublin office proudly volunteering in the community, and other offices posted group photos wearing company colors, participating in fundraisers, or on exercise bikes in their on-site gym sporting self-made #MyOfficeRocks t-shirts. This simple campaign has gone a long way to both showcase and cultivate a budding social business.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2 ServiceSource Chatter campaign #MyOfficeRocks

When considering approaches to social business, many people want to talk first about the tools, often at the expense of the true change agent—internal and external relationship building. Relationships are the foundation of social business, and developing them requires a fundamental shift in mindset, starting with turning your employees into advocates and continuing with pouring passion and care into every customer interaction.

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