EarthLink, like most companies, is confronting a powerful new force: social media.
Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other social media along with higher broadband adoption and greater customization are changing the rules of corporate engagement.
Customer interaction now includes conversations and dialogues. Corporate communications now place a higher premium on transparency, candor and informality. Information is now increasingly decentralized, employing a variety of messengers who may or may not work for the company.
Knowing how to use these new applications is not enough; success rests upon understanding a company's tolerance for social media's unpredictability, as well as respecting its customers' communications needs.
Understanding your corporate culture
Understanding social media does not mean that a company should immediately start blogging. Social media can be a serious mistake if there is a low tolerance for experimentation, transparency and decentralization. Regardless of a company's DNA, social media must be accepted and embraced internally; both employees and management must be educated on how best to implement a social media strategy.
Respecting your customers
One size does not fit all. The expectations of customers, including investors and partners, are changing as fast as the technology itself-- but not for everyone. While my parents use the phone, and my peers use email, my friends' nieces and nephews swear by IM, Facebook and MySpace. A successful social media strategy requires an understanding of one's customers and carefully balancing the use of new and traditional information channels.
What does this mean for EarthLink? It means engaging our more than 5.3 million customers with products and services that meet their needs. The key is to reach out to the tech-savvy customer who is tagging, blogging and social networking without alienating the traditional customer who is just fine with a dial-up connection to email and surf the web.
We are in the early stages of social media-- experimenting gradually and evolving with customer and employee feedback. In 2005, we launched our first corporate blog. It was devoted to helping customers protect themselves from spyware, viruses and spam. EarthLink subject matter experts submitted postings on a voluntary basis when they had the time to do so.
We learned from that first try and have subsequently relaunched the blog (http://blogs.earthlink.net/) to reflect the broader mission of the company and the wider possibilities of the internet.
We also hired a full-time blogger to ensure consistency and regular postings. Our blog master is given wide authority to write freely in non-corporate speak on topics that are relevant to our customers. Restrictions are minimal, but the disclosure of proprietary or non-public material information is forbidden. While our first blog was not as widely read as we had hoped, our Earthling, as it is called, is listed in Technorati's 20,000 most highly ranked blogs.
In addition to blogging, we employ a variety of venues to supplement traditional marketing efforts-- including podcasts, vlogs and a private website that gives our executives like Access & Voice President Mike Lunsford and Value Added Services President Craig Forman an opportunity to engage in real time discussions with hundreds of customers about our products and services.
In terms of podcasting, it has been a learning experience for us. Some listeners felt the frequency of traditional advertising on the PodShow was not appropriate and weren't afraid to let us know publicly. We viewed their feedback as an opportunity to engage our customers and demonstrate our ability to listen to them. In the spirit of new media, we jumped head first into user-generated content-- even sponsoring a listener challenge to create the next ad that will be picked from submitted entries.
We also became one of the first companies to bid on the right to sponsor ads on Rocketboom, a daily three-minute video blog, and collaborated with its producers to create ads that reflected the show's tone and style.
It is not enough to create new channels of communication. We are also launching products that will give customers greater control of their internet experience and take advantage of Web 2.0. One of our first forays is WebLife, a service that lets you store, organize, edit and share your digital photos, media and data files online.
Clearly social media is creating new opportunities. No question it is also risky. The blogosphere is unforgiving for those who fail to abide by its rules. But we can't ignore it.
Success will come from respecting your audience and understanding your corporate culture and customers. The process is evolutionary, but we feel the long term prospects are revolutionary in creating a whole new relationship to the outside world.