Before Twitter, many aspects of social media could be handled in a passive, when-you-get-around-to-it way. But Twitter came around, and people just couldn't help themselves. Information needed to be tweeted more frequently and in 140 character bursts. No time to wait for an update and very little reason to return to a fan page.
Now that Twitter has prompted Facebook to make sweeping design and functionality changes, how does this affect brands that want to connect to their "fan base" (aka their customers)? Under normal circumstances, I tend to say that the same business principles apply. But, in this case: Brands, most of you need to change!
Now is the time to take care of customers (by listening)
Times like this call for a little re-trenching to better focus on your customers. Ensure that they're supremely satisfied with the experience and, most importantly, the value that you're providing to them. Customers are demanding public responses to their inquiries and issues, whether or not those issues are tweeted to you. Facebook fan pages only go so far now; your raving fans want to hear from the CEO via their blogs, an online video address (thanks to President Obama), and a Twitter response saying, "@customer, we'll get right on that."
This is about being human and starting the dialogue now, before it is too late. How do you know it's too late? It is too late if you need to communicate a message urgently to your loyal customer base and you haven't established the appropriate channels by which to do that. You don't have followers, fans, subscribers, or people consuming your feeds -- what you do have is an email list.
Be where they are
Pass by a teenager's computer these days, and you'll see that, most likely, Facebook is up. It is where they interact with their peers, converse with brands, and influence society (helping to prompt an incredible voter turnout in the 2008 election). Ahead of the curve, Papa John's launched a Facebook widget to allow users to place a pizza order right from Facebook. After all, in the past, you couldn't get a teenager off a couch to pick up the phone. Nowadays, you can't even get them off Facebook to place a pizza order.
Get creative and remove the barriers. The more accessible you are to your customers than your competitors, the more likely it is that you're going to be a part of your customers' lives.
A return to family and friends
In times like this, people need the network and support of their friends, families, and associates. They've found that network and support through social media.
The classic social media properties helped many of us to connect with long-lost friends, arrange meet-ups, and recall some memories. But Twitter and the new Facebook features have now enabled us to follow and interact with new ones we thought we might never have connected with. (As @icowboy, I follow Shaq, Diddy, and Eddie Izzard, among others, along with myriad brands.) As cheesy as this may sound, I have started to feel closer to these people and identify more closely with them.
The key point is that they truly are people (including the brands), and they have stories, quirks, and issues. So, as a brand, this is your opportunity to humanize your company and be part of your customers' life experiences and their personal networks, from which they draw so much. You can be part of a positive association in the good times. And, in the bad, you may have the support of your friends and followers when you need it.
Really get to know people
You have their profiles, and you hear their voices -- so put them to good use. It is truly a valuable experience when you get to have an open conversation with a customer. Start shaping your web presence around these people by understanding who they are, what they need, and how they talk. You want to be authentic, but you also want to be considerate to your loyalists. By getting to better know them, you can deepen your connection and become more valuable to them over time.
All of this requires a lot of action -- at times with less planning than you're used to -- as well as resources, effort, and a fundamental change in how you communicate. In a drive to be responsive, as it is required by this always-on medium, you're going to have to be rawer and, at times, even flawed. It is OK -- you are, in fact, human.
Jump on the bandwagon now, and remain in the conversation for the long haul. The sooner you act, the more leeway you will have with experimentation. The key is to have your eyes and ears open for feedback. You will get that feedback in droves, minute by minute, and be required to respond in an instant. Try different things. But, above all, be true to your brand, your voice, and your values. Those elements will be what define you, rather than a few typos and I'll-have-to-get-back-to-yous.
Reid Carr is president of Red Door Interactive.