Improving the Customer Experience with Social Media

I have been thinking lately about how customers form their perceptions of brands and what we can do about influencing those memories. Brands and products can easily become look alike commodities, which makes gaining mind and wallet share more difficult. Brands want to be distinctive, stand out among the crowd and be noticed by consumers. The rise of social media has, in my opinion, provided more insight into consumer’s perceptions as well as opportunities to use listening tools and pay attention to one’s own social networks for a rich data set of clues. If done correctly, a brand can address issues and show gratitude to customers and create connective memories to that experience and ultimately the brand.

In my direct experience customers either start their conversation with a company using social media or turn to it as a last resort. Regardless, brands need to be watching these spaces closely and jumping in as soon as possible. It goes without saying that when I say jumping in I mean with trained professionals.

There’s a fascinating behavior economics principle called the peak-end rule. It was first suggested by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner for Economic Sciences in 2002.

According to the peek-end rule we judge our experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Other information is not lost, but it is not used.

It could be fair to say that consumers who post on social media streams are at a peak with a brand. Skilled companies who engage these customers quickly, acknowledge their emotions and work to solve the problem will deliver an end that can leave the customer with a better perception. Ending on a high note means you have won half the battle.

Social media is potentially a new customer experience tool that can be employed to improve interactions on both sides and perhaps nudge the perceptions customers have of a brand. If your customer truly is at a peak, then we should do everything we can to end the event on a high note – if it has been unpleasant – or propel a good experience even further up the scale. Social, has the power to leverage immediacy, intimacy and interaction into a powerful generator of memories.

Image re-drawn from Greg Ness’s graphic

The Role of the Persona is Shifting

I have been a proponent of using Personas to assist in the design of digital interfaces since 2003. I still believe in them, but I think their role has shifted and has perhaps become a bit diminished. Personas are user archetypes, models of groups of users that help define features, requirements and messaging choices. They are invaluable. If you develop digital interfaces and you don’t use Personas, you are seriously behind most everyone.

The Persona’s rival has taken the stage and it’s the real customer. Voice of the customer tools have improved over the last few years and companies pay more attention to what customers say thanks to the rise of social media. Everyday I sit at the breakfast table and read yesterday’s voice of the customer stream that was written by customers directly on our web site. It’s sent to me via email unfiltered, except for blocking out any characters that appear to be account numbers or personal information. Then I navigate to our Facebook brand page and read that, then over to our Twitter stream and read that.

We have done a lot to shape and enrich our Personas over the years, by enhancing their stories and adding other attributes in an attempt to bring them to life and therefore more approachable for business partners. But still they are cardboard cutouts. It’s much more powerful to read words from your customer or see someone’s Avatar adjacent to their feedback.

Reading customer comments evokes a roller coaster of emotions. One comment is glowing with praise that brings a smile to my face and a sense of pride. The next one calls out something that is just, well, stupid of us. We take all these comments seriously, logging them, and then trying to evaluate where in the priority fix queue they should fall. It’s a real time customer focus group and it’s beginning to influence how I design and shape project work almost as much as Personas have done in the past.

Curious if others are having the same experience or have other opinions.

Images from Avizor and Meetin’Bytes

Does the Internet See the REAL Me?

Privacy and identity are lightning rods when you talk about the Internet. Many of us are social animals and are apparently somewhat fearless when it comes to using the web to share, gather and communicate. Our polar opposites wouldn’t go anywhere near anything as risky as that, fearing others will find out too much and use it to harm them. I make no judgements. It’s a purely personal choice people will make.

When we meet people we instantly begin to process who they are based on what we know and our prior experiences. These vary depending on if we are having a phone conversation, an in person meeting, or an e-mail exchange. But what if all we could get was their digital fingerprint? I’ve occasionally wondered how I would be characterized if there was a sophisticated program capable of searching the web based on the slightest of clues, like my name, and assemble what was found into a “digital characterization.” Well the wait is over. At least the first phase of it. MIT has been working on just such a project called Personas. Here is how they describe the project’s philosophy.

In a world where fortunes are sought through data-mining vast information repositories, the computer is our indispensable but far from infallible assistant. Personas demonstrates the computer’s uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name. It is meant for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world, where digital histories are as important if not more important than oral histories, and computational methods of condensing our digital traces are opaque and socially ignorant.

Here’s their rundown on how it works.

Enter your name, and Personas scours the web for information and attempts to characterize the person – to fit them to a predetermined set of categories that an algorithmic process created from a massive corpus of data. The computational process is visualized with each stage of the analysis, finally resulting in the presentation of a seemingly authoritative personal profile.

Of course anyone who visits the site will immediately put in their own name, quickly followed by others. Perhaps friends, co-workers, family, famous people. It’s fascinating experiment. After typing in my name and kicking off the system you get a building persona series of pages. This is mine about half way through.

Characterizing Steve A Furman
Click image to enlarge

This is my final characterization.

Steve A Furman MIT Persona
Click image to enlarge

How did it do? Surprisingly well. It got the major attributes spot on.

  • Online
  • Management
  • Movies
  • Social

I don’t have the data dictionary, so I can’t decipher it exactly. I wonder what’s included in aggression and illegal? Since they are probably not scouring content behind sites that require log-ins (my assumption), like Facebook, lots of information is missing. The result ranks family well down the list, but a large part of my Facebook content is family related. Not perfect, and not trying to be. An evolving experiment on the ever growing digital trail.

Try it yourself here.

Sizing your Social Media Audience

vacuum-tubeForrester Research publishes and tracks a social engagement “Ladder of Participation.”  It’s a framework, based on consumer research, for categorizing users of Social Media by activity and age. This construct has some longevity and I would recommend you spend some time with it. But companies already have their own ways to segment customers or identify prospects. Introducing new thinking on this front will be confusing and getting traction will be slow. Marketing teams have their own sacred segments and chances are your E-Business team has created design Personas. How will the marketing teams make sense of all these segments? This is typical in large firms that have sophisticated marketing departments.

The bottom line is that all marketers need to have a clear picture in their minds of the customer. Not just a cold, calculates segment, but a real person. Here is one approach to solving that problem.

  • Field a comprehensive research study for both your customers and prospects to learn your brand drivers – what consumers deem as most important and what they are aware of
  • Create segments from that data as a singular exercise
  • Overlay your design Personas on that segmentation. If you’ve done a good job creating your Personas this will probably be a 75% match
  • Tweak the Persona descriptions to fill in the gaps and arrive at a one for one match. By the way if your Personas are over 3 years old, you have to start all over. Having Social Media and online brand attributes written into your Persona biographies is critical. Also things like what handset they use and how they use phone app technology, etc.
  • The research segments should be the base, but the Personas will bring it to life for the marketing teams. The E-Business and Research teams should collaborate closely on this
  • Overlay the Forrester participation ladder label to each of these segments
  • Run the numbers for all these overlays and you’ve got the population/opportunity for all your segments for customers on book
  • Define and set flags for each of these segments that you can use for your CRM, online, IVR, call center, e-mail, web targeting, etc. This will help with consistency
  • Inform your reporting and analysis teams of this shift
  • Your prospect population is also critical. Find a way to use this scheme to reach potential customers. Paid search targeted ad networks, etc.
  • Create a strategy/approach for how to engage each of these (include social tools) and you’re on your way
  • Before you finish with this “churn and burn” revisit your Social Media strategy. It’s about the objectives, not the technology.

Business Week has an innovative data section on their site. This one takes the Forrester ladder of social participation and makes it look like a Wired Magazine chart.

Would love to hear from anyone who is doing or has done this, or has a variation on the theme. Thanks Business Week magazine.