The telephone was once pretty useless too, so what?

I recently heard for the umpteenth time that someone who had signed up to Twitter and didn’t gain a following of a million within a few weeks had given up, claiming it doesn’t work as a channel to raise awareness and engage on policy-related issues because it’s not credible and 140 characters is only enough for a bit of mindless babble.

I doubt it. There are two reasons it wouldn’t have worked (beyond the fact that it always takes a bit more time than you think): either tweets were dull or irrelevant, or, on the given issue, there aren’t enough people interested in it active on Twitter YET i.e. there’s no critical mass. A telephone too was pretty useless when hardly anyone one had one.

So two points:

  • A channel is just a channel: it’s not the nature of it that determines whether it works or not but what you transmit on it. Does an annoying telemarketer trying to sell you something utterly useless make you think the phone is a worthless communications channel?
  •  A channel is just a channel: it’ll work if there’s enough critical mass i.e. lots of people on it, meaning people in your sector/area of interest/issue, actively using it. Fact of the matter is, in most areas, they aren’t all on Twitter yet.

And a third:

  • Enough with the “only 140 characters”: it’s enough for a quick exchange and to drive traffic somewhere else where you have as much space as you like to delve deeper (a blog, for instance.)

There are policy folk on Twitter, I promise

At the risk of sounding like an anorak, I get a kick out of asking PA professionals how many of their “stakeholders” are on Twitter, hearing them say “none” and then asking them for a short list of their most important “stakeholders” i.e. MEPs in relevant committees, commission officials in relevant DGs, relevant people at perm reps, in the media etc.

Shock horror, we then discover that many of them in fact are on Twitter. Some even use it properly. They follow and are followed by lots of their peers in their same sector. They are active every day. They ask and answer questions and provide information (and want some in return).

So once again: if you’re a PA pro, following the right people on Twitter and generally being interesting and/or relevant will provide you with access to lots of people who matter, it may make them like you, and what’s more, it will supply a stream of information that you might only get elsewhere the following day.

I’m proud to say FH gets it, but once I leave the building, I shan’t be holding my breath.

“I don’t get Twitter”

I hear it all the time, and admittedly, it’s not the easiest thing to provide a clear and tangible response to. There’s scores of reasons why Twitter can be important to organisations: learning from and building relationships with individuals and other organisations with similar interests; tracking issues in real-time, in turn enabling appropriate analysis and response to consumer, constituent or other stakeholder concerns.

However, when explaining it to people who are not communicators or avid web users, and who would no doubt struggle to contextualise, that all sounds a bit bland. What I find works best as an explanation in these cases is contextualising within someone’s own personal interests. Ask them what they’re into and, say, if they cite Italian cinema, ask them to imagine connecting to 1,000 other people from all over the world who are really into Italian cinema in an offline setting. A film festival perhaps.

On Twitter, they can connect to these same 1,000 people. In one place, they’ll be able to track what these 1,000 people are saying and items (articles, reviews, screenings) they are providing. As a follower they have the option to simply observe and learn: a non-stop incoming stream of valuable information they’d otherwise have to read 100 websites and magazines a day to keep up with. If they then fancy engaging further (which they should) they can provide this community with their own input, respond to what others are saying and engage in conversations.

So you’re essentially placing Twitter within a real-world framework. Doing that will make it seem a little bit less like technical mumbo jumbo and more about human interaction, which is what Twitter and social media at large are all about: they’re spaces that allow for people to connect, not the playing fields of techies, teens or social recluses. And that’s really the key message to transmit to the doubters.

Social media and customer service: take 2 – crisis communications, educating, engaging

Just re-read my last post, and wanted to expand on it slightly, because I think I make it appear as if the main value in “listening” online is to enable you to respond and engage with users who don’t like your company, product or sector and in this way help shape the online debate in the long-term.

First, it’s not always just the long-term that matters. Something goes terribly wrong, you’ve got a PR calamity on your hands, you’re in crisis communications mode and your online response needs to be very much short-term because the web is where bad news spreads the fastest. What do you do? These are, in short, the steps to take:

  1. You establish your position and what you’re going to say (this is valid for offline as well as online communications.) If you’ve done something where you’re patently in the wrong, admit to it, apologise, and take very tangible action to make amends. If the bad press is actually unrepresentative and you simply want to correct it, try to be nice about it i.e. don’t say that whoever is spreading the news is a so and so, but just correct the mistake.
  2. You set-up an online hub on your website where you publish your apology, rebuttal, immediate response or whatever. All updates should be made here first and all your other communication should point here.
  3. You get the best online monitoring set-up (using a specialised agency) and set up a dedicated team that will deal with follow-up.
  4. When you come across the story in reputable blogs or other sites, fora etc., you respond (being humble and staying on message..) and direct users to your hub. Result? If done well, you’ll slow down the spread of negative press while your response becomes part of the story, rather than just what went wrong.

Second, it’s not just about engaging with naysayers. You want to produce content that educates people beyond the negative press you’re getting, meaning that you don’t just communicate in response to criticism. You also need to proactively produce content that can contribute to the debate. And you want to engage with people who actually support your position too: tell them you appreciate their material and provide them with other content, and over time, build up relationships with them. This is probably the most important element of a long-term approach, as you’re helping to nurture a community of ambassadors who support your position.

UPDATE: just came across this post about online crisis communications (in French.)

Social media and customer service: would it work with issues?

I’ve been reading about how social media is transforming customer service for a while now (came across this article on Econsultancy about this very topic today) and am wondering to what extent the same approach is viable when it comes to regulatory issues and the like in Brussels.

Here’s the gist of how social media has been impacting customer service:

  1. Disgruntled customer complains about a company’s product on Twitter (or whatever.)
  2. Company has a social media monitoring set-up and picks it up.
  3. Company responds to customer in blog comment, directly, on Twitter etc. in calm and measured way, apologising and offering a solution of some sort.
  4. Customer is happy, says so, others who have followed conversation are impressed.

Is this a lot of work on just one customer? It might not have been in the past because people’s word of mouth networks were limited, but now, individuals can potentially reach millions of other online users, so listening and responding to single customers can have a massive positive knock-on effect. A company that is seen to be engaging and looking out for its customers becomes highly valued and the story can spread online. Plus if bad reviews are simply left to fester they too can spread untouched and even reach the top of search rankings so that people who search for a company or its products online might come across a blog entry slating it amongst the first few items. Bottom line is it’s good for the company.

What if the same approach were adopted by companies and other organisations who communicate on issues in Brussels or elsewhere? Online conversations are increasingly shaping public opinion and it’s the job of good communicators to tap into them and try to help to shape and shift the debate. What if, say, company X produces “nasty chemical Y” which people are writing about on Twitter or their blogs, expressing concern, and company X were to respond saying something along the lines of: “We accept and understand your concern. We’re trying to do our bit. The University of Z has issued a report which relates to your concern. Might be of interest? Here’s the link.”

It’s tricky, but I think it could be work as part of a long-term strategy aimed at tapping into the right conversations, nipping concerns at the bud, and slowly shifting the debate online.

However, I’d make sure the following guidelines were adopted and scrupulouslty adhered to:

  • Humility at all times!
  • Don’t use corporate gobbledygook but communicate like you would with a normal person.
  • Always keep in mind that what you say might spread, so make sure it’s appropriate to multiple audiences.
  • If you’re providing material, try to use third-party content whenever possible: far more credible than your pretty brochure.
  • Don’t interact with nutjobs. For some individuals and in particular single-issue pressure groups, their issue goes beyond concern for people and the environment etc. It’s an obsession and they’ll never ever be convinced by your arguments. If you try to communicate with them directly they might use it against you in some way. Do interact with people who are concerned but don’t have all the facts.
  • Be proactive as well as reactive: make it part of broader social media approach i.e. don’t just, say, respond on Twitter to people who are concerned about your issue, but also communicate independently. Otherwise it’ll just look like damage limitation rather than serious engagement.

Reputation management in a day

The smart people at We are Social had an interesting post up describing a conversation that took place on Twitter about their client (@stephenfry). It was claimed that he didn’t write his own tweets, which he in fact does, but within a day the whole thing had been cleared up and the person making the claim, none other than Robert Scoble (@scobleizer), had retracted the claim and apologised.

How? We are Social were scanning Twitter for comments about their clients, caught the relevant tweet, responded on Twitter immediately, and Scoble obviously did the right thing and apologised. Case closed.

This incident is a great case-study in how effective monitoring and quick reponse via social media can speed up reputation management. Of course, in this case all people concerned actually work in social media, which helps, but generally, social media monitoring and rapid response is becoming part of the communications mix for a number of organisations and politicians, in an attempt to nip untruths and other damaging stories in the bud. On the political front, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was, as ever, at the forefront with Fight the Smears.

And if we look into our crystal ball?

  • All organisations and politicians will have a social media monitoring set-up as well as a social media presence which will permit them to address issues directly and instantly.
  • Reputation and crisis management will be web-led.
  • PR agencies or even internal comms teams dealing with reputation and crisis management will be given a lot less time to clear up the mess..!

Twitter is an AMAZING learning tool

I’ve blogged about Twitter a few times, but have only really started using it a lot over the last few days (@steffenmoller). Although I’ve banged on about the value of Twitter as a learning tool – i.e. you hook up to the right people who share your interests and they provide you with insights and links that you wouldn’t have found yourself – I’m amazed by the extent to which this is the case.

I use Netvibes a lot, which allows me to view the latest posts and updates from a variety of blogs and news sites (100+). I update it regularly by adding new blogs and love it, but I have to say I’ve read far more interesting material over the last couple of days via links and hints from people I’m following. And I’m only following 28 people so far: what will it be like once I’ve found hundreds if not thousands of people that I want to follow? I think today is the day I really understand what all the fuss is about and think Twitter has raised the bar for how professionals of the future will be expected to interact and the knowledge they’ll be expected to possess.

Is Twitter creepy?!

Following up on my recent post on Microblogging in Europe, here’s something I hadn’t thought about.

I just read this article on Business Week, which  refers to how one person found it a little creepy when he posted a tweet referring to a company and then received a message from this same company the next day. Europeans tend in general to be more concerned about privacy then Americans, so companies that want to engage on Twitter in Europe should perhaps be a little more careful about interacting than their American counterparts? Sure, if someone is on Twitter, they want to engage you might say. Perhaps with regular members of the community rather than companies though – at least in some cases?

I think the best approach would be for companies in Europe to spend a little more time listening and assessing before jumping straight into the deep-end.

Microblogging in Europe

Microblogging. Think a platform where you can publish a sentence from your PC or mobile phone in a few seconds; or think Facebook with status updates and nothing else. The use of microblogging services like Twitter for professional purposes have not taken off in Europe and yet they’re all the rage across the pond – could it be that we’re just late adopters in Europe, and that this will change once millions of people have signed up to Twitter and the like, or is it that it simply couldn’t work here?

So how is it being used in the US? I’m not going to analyse in depth, but a few of the uses are:

  • As with other forms of social media, simply to listen. Using, say, tweetscan, companies are taking note of what people are saying about them, as are politicians.
  • After having listened, interaction may be next, following the adage of open, honest, one-to-one communications which customers now expect. If people are writing stuff about them, companies are actually writing back. Or they can ask questions, or generally express an interest and be seen to engage.
  • Providing news, like updates on product releases, events, special offers, or just anything people might be interested in. JetBlue do this. As does the Obama campaign, regularly updating people on campaign events via Twitter.
  • Customer service. Some companies are actually keeping track of what’s being said about them, and when someone complains or needs some information about a product or service, the company responds on Twitter. Comcast are at the forefront of using Twitter for customer care.

But why are companies (or campaigns, as in the case of Obama) using Twitter? What’s wrong with just using email or other channels? Again, not an in-depth analysis, but the main reasons are:

  • It’s another place where people are having conversations, and knowing what people are saying may be valuable, as a company (or organisation, politician, whatever) may want to take note and even do something about it!
  • The medium as a message matters i.e. the type of conversation one can have. Messages are short and informal, obviously written by a person without scores of senior communications type people wondering whether the message fits the corporate mantra, meaning you’re personalising the way you communicate. Result? If done well, showing people you’re a decent human-being rather than a corporate puppet, that you’ve got soul, and it’ll help to build relationships.
  • It’s just handy: it being quick and easy simply means it’s suited for providing quick updates to people.

For more in-depth analyses of the uses of Twitter, I’d recommend these three posts from Ogilvy’s excellent 360° Digital Influence blog: Twitter for customer relations, Twitter for crisis communications, and Twitter for corporate reputation management.

As to the central question: will microblogging for business or other professional purposes remain limited in Europe because of inherent barriers, or is it just a question of time? Assuming Twitter and the like do take off and there’ll be millions of daily users in a couple of years, some barriers one could think of might be that the language factor makes it difficult to track conversations in multiple countries, so is it really worth it? Or that Europeans are more reserved and don’t regard their roles as consumers as seriously as Americans. Will they really complain about a product, or sing its praises, on Twitter?

I think both points can safely be dismissed. So what if a conversation is not pan-European? The quality or importance of an online conversation is not just defined by how many millions of people are following it, but by the nature of its content and engagement. A company can learn a lot from following online conversations even if there aren’t huge numbers of people involved. And engaging, or providing updates to valued customers or supporters, can be extremely precious in building relationships, even if the numbers are small. Similarly, so what if Europeans tend to be a bit more reserved when it comes to letting off steam in social media? Again, it’s not the number of people, or how vociferous they might be when discussing, say, a brand, but what they’re saying that matters. In addition, I’d say that Europeans’ obsession with mobile phones could play a part here. Being able to update ones own Twitter by mobile phone after having been to an interesting place or seeing something out of the ordinary, or simply to carry on following a conversation when away from the PC, would entice quite a few people.

Plus, moving away from marketing and into a Brussels context, I can see a viable use for a microblogging platform as a near-instant monitoring tool. Dedicated monitoring providers and consultancies are paid a fortune to follow legislative issues that impact their clients, but the monitoring reports are usually sent via email the next day. Basic updates at crucial times, say during a plenary debate at the European Parliament or a key event, can be given via a microblogging platform so that people are updated in near-real time. Via a plug-in, these updates could be made to appear on a website or blog as well as the relevant twitter page, so you would not even need to send people somewhere new, just say: “check out the live updates on our site”. Live-blogging is not far removed from this, but that implies slightly longer entries and requires a laptop, whereas microblogging/monitoring could even be done from a mobile phone.

And will any MEPs or MEP hopefuls take a leaf out of Obama’s book and try to Twitter their way into constituents’ hearts in the upcoming campaigns?! It’d probably be a waste of time to send regular updates given the low profile of European elections (no I’m not contradicting myself: updates don’t mean you’re engaging in a conversation and should only be provided with a significant number of followers). But I would advise them to follow what people are saying in social media in general, including Twitter, and the blogosphere in particular. There won’t be much, but some of it could make interesting reading. And if they really want to start an online conversation, I’d recommend they resort to traditional blogging, but I’ll save that for another post.