In the late 1990s, a technology change caused a massive shift in the way in which news organizations produced prime-time news. While most news organizations were shooting on the industry standard at the time - Betacam SP - and editing tape to tape to produce the nightly news, I helped usher in the digital revolution at a TV newsroom in South Africa called eNews. Although we shot on tape, the digital footage was imported to servers where it was accessible easily for viewing and editing on non-linear software. Commonplace today, the evening news, script, graphics and video was compiled and broadcast from server. Although our newscast was an hour earlier than the flagship SABC competition, our deadlines for airtime were very similar. It meant we could broadcast the same story as the competetition an hour earlier.
Server-based, nonlinear digital video was a key factor – along with a kick-ass team -- that allowed eNews to eclipse the SABC’s audience share within just a few months, overtaking their primetime evening news audience numbers.
Today's tech shift
Technology shifts such as this are impacting the ways in which business news and information is being disseminated today, and like the SABC, traditional corporate PR and message control is being eaten alive. The Arab Spring was not just a political phenomenon; it was a technology-fueled social phenomenon. Smart phones together have put in the hands of every individual a way in which they’re able to record events and talk about companies and issues irrespective of the corporate PR machine; social media have provided the ability for these smartphone messages to be shared easily, groups to form quickly, and where content is negative, be costly to companies.
Just one example - instances of people posting to the internet their encounters with electronic phone trees apparently designed to prevent customer service. Wastelands of endless telephone loops in which customers navigate pressing ‘4’ for yet another electronic irrelevancy, then ‘3’ to get put on hold, or ‘2’ to get a recording about information on a web page that’s out of date, are now being posted to the web along with acerbic commentary.
Making it worse, when they reach a human, the outsourced employee's script-driven conversation is also grist for the mill. Darwinian service mechanisms such as this in which only the fittest customers survive to obtain any joy from customer service are now going viral, sometimes driving up phone call volumes, and other times spawning web and social media sites devoted to illustrating the poor service and warning off new customers not to buy that company's product because after-market service will be a nightmare. Nothing like a flashmob to push Darwinian customer care to extinction or force it to improve.
These customer care approaches were often adopted by companies that balanced the cost of customer service throughput against satisfaction. But it was done before social media allowed people to easily aggregate their experiences. Customers, by the droves, can now compare notes and share their dissatisfaction with future buyers, drive declining brand perceptions and negatively impact sales and quarterly results. The cost equation of customer satisfaction is being changed by aggregated customer-generated commentary that often bypasses official customer sites.
Two years ago, the pace of sharing was rapid, but it mostly happened from laptops and desktop computers. This pace has accelerated with the increased adoption of smartphones carrying social media apps that are at hand almost all the time.
One example - women’s anger at the Susan G. Komen blunder is still affecting donations and has made donors much more skeptical of the organization and raised the persuasion threshold for giving. Another was when Rush Limbaugh accused a student who used birth control of being a prostitute, which led to an enormous backlash against the advertisers who support his radio show. In corporate filings of profitability in the quarter subsequently, results reported showed significant decreases in earnings for that period. People affronted by his sexist comments got on their Facebook pages and their Twitter accounts and sent emails by the millions to advertisers. Being able to post instantly via a smartphone is making social media megaphones louder.
Many businesses have responded to the opportunity social media presents and have created social media pages. While it is an important step towards becoming of the conversation, unless social media is considered strategically, simply having a Facebook page and posting press releases to it - or engaging in other one-way practices - won't cut the mustard. In current parlance, that's a 'Fail', and the page is likely to be held up for ridicule.
Social media will require adjustments and in some instances, even some structural change. But it provides an excellent mechanism to obtain rapid, first-hand information from a customer base, product feedback, and a way to improve services. This means that companies that engage with their customer base on social media immediately are able to plug into a range of market feedback about their products and services. But it requires a listening and open attitude and a capacity and willingness to act upon what they are hearing. Part of what Coherent Marketing does is help companies develop the internal processes to respond to new media and in some instances, the change management required to effectively integrate these new media into their communications and business marketing practices.
Social media provides ways to quickly determine how their products are being used versus how they are being marketed and the kinds of gaps in satisfaction that that can create - or, alternately, new markets to sell into. It does require new ways of listening and new ways of internally sharing and acting on this information. To authentically engage with customers and stakeholders and derive value from what is being learned will require a change in the way in which the structures of power within an organization shape, process, direct, and respond to information, both internally and externally. Going back to the eNews example - an analogue newsroom with tape-to-tape edit suites just doesn't work the same as a digital, online, server based organization, and the decision trees are different, too.
Companies that thoughtfully and strategically reorganize they way in which they handle, develop, disseminate and respond to information in this new social world will have a distinct advantage over others that are still 'analog' in a digital world.