Who Leads Social Media?

SAN FRANCISCO — Corporate blogging reached a tipping point in 2005, when one poll found
that 55 percent of companies had blogging initiatives. Business blogs remain the cornerstone of companies’ social media efforts, according to panelists at the Ad-Tech Conference, held this week in San Francisco. But it’s getting competition from an unlikely and unglamorous source: the call center.

Beth Thomas-Kim, director of consumer services for Nestle USA, pointed out that a telephone call is a true person-to-person interaction. In order to enable call center reps to listen and respond to customers, Nestle has removed its “handle time”
requirements. “You don’t have to teach empathy, but you have to let it flower,” she told the audience.

Within the call centers of Levi Strauss & Co. call centers, instead of incentives to complete as many calls as possible, reps are rewarded for the number of thank-you notes they send to callers, according to Tom Asher, head of consumer relations for North America. ”

As Web use grows, call center traffic is shrinking — and this could be an opportunity to rethink it as part of the greater social media effort, Thomas-Kim said. Pointing out that blogs are still an inbound communication channel, she added, “The walls need to be blown out from the call center,” she said. “We need to migrate outside our own world and talk to consumers where they are.”

None of the companies on the panel seemed to be doing this yet.
Asher explained, “There were communities we weren’t aware of, like a community on a car site about how to wash and fit your 501 jeans.
Should we engage with them? We’re not sure if we need to create the communities or dive in and interact with existing ones.” Asher thinks Levis needs to go out into extant communities, but the company as a whole hasn’t made that decision. “It’s tough to get everyone in your company and brand to get aligned,” he added.

Meanwhile, it’s not totally clear whether interacting with consumers via social media is marketing, public relations or some new entity entirely.

When Sony Electronics started a company blog, it wrestled with which part of the company should manage it. Sony finally placed it within corporate communications, according to Rick Clancy, senior vice president of corporate communications. Nestle and Levi Strauss’
efforts were located in consumer relations; and panelist Todd Cunningham is a senior vice president of brand strategy and planning for MTV Networks.

Jordan Warren, president of the San Francisco office of Agency.com, advised companies to create their own forums for discussion. ” If you don’t provide a venue for consumers to talk about your brand, they’ll do it themselves,” he said.

What the panelists agreed on was that the definition of a brand has irrevocably changed thanks to social media. Warren defined a brand as “what’s in the consumer’s mind. It’s composed of lots of voices — and not always coming from the company.”

Added Asher, “We’re just now realizing that the brand always has been owned by consumers — and they’re going to control what it is.”

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