This article first appeared in the PointZero magazine, issue 2 October 2009.

It is often said that marketing helps consumers decide which product they should buy, and the customer service and operations department of any company is where this work can come undone in a flash.

As rightly identified by Dave Evans in a recent post titled “Social Business: the New Black”


Marketing sets the expectation, marketing creates demand, marketing helps a consumer differentiate why one choice is better than another choice.

Operations delivers.

Any gap between the two drives a conversation on the social Web.

Hence the title of this article: “Mind the (social media) gap”.

Social media is going mainstream, giving customers a voice like never before, and if there is a huge gap between the marketing promise and the actual service delivered then the whole world will know about it as a result of just one angry tweet.  This gap is something that is driving conversations online in a way that was not even conceivable just a few years ago.

A good example of this is the now infamous “United breaks guitars” incident, where Dave Carroll watched helplessly as his guitar was broken by United airlines ground staff, and in turn United looked on as $180million was wiped off their stock price almost instantly as the story spread around the world.

Companies need to understand that they no longer have control of their brand – all they can hope to do is to manage how other people treat it by using the power of social media.

It could be argued that companies need to invest more heavily in the tools, people and processes to monitor, measure and manage what is being said about their products online, than is spent advertising  the product in the first place.

You wouldn’t interrupt a conversation with an ad would you?

Companies wanting to “advertise” in social media channels don’t get that this is the old way of doing things – driven by 50 years of a broadcast mindset where companies decide the messages they wanted to project.  Advertisers still assume that consumers will receive and act on these messages in just the way they planned.  Social media is proving that this is no longer the case.

In the last few years with blogs, Facebook, and now Twitter emerging, this way of thinking by advertisers is likely to disappear altogether.  Peer advocacy is taking hold, and consumers are now turning to their real, or online “friends” for advice on products and services.

This means that it is more important than ever for companies to actively listen to these new social channels for mentions (both positive and negative) of their brand – and act accordingly.

In the old PR world, indentifying the “influencers” was a matter of having a decent journalist and analyst Rolodex.  Today though, almost anyone armed with a blog or twitter account becomes as important to a brand as journalists once were.

The impact of poor customer service can not only completely undermine the latest marketing campaign, but as was seen with United, wipe millions off the value of an entire company.

My advice to companies looking at investing in social media is to actually start with the customer facing areas first – operations, support & customer service.  Interaction by consumers with these areas of the company will drive most of the “noise” online – much more than any new marketing campaign.

Sadly, most companies starting out with social media seem to be focusing their efforts on PR (an extension of existing clipping services) or marketing – trying to understand the impact of social media on “their “ brand.  What they don’t realise is that the operational areas of a company are where most of the  customer interaction is taking place – and this is where the initial efforts with social media are likely to bear the most fruit.

Step one for any company wanting to dip a toe into social media is to listen.  There are a number of free tools that allow companies to start to listen to what is being said about them online.  A good place to start would be to type the company name or one of their major brands into the Twitter search engine at Other free tools such as will provide an indication of the urgency behind developing a strategy to cope with these new channels.

Free tools are a good “social thermometer” to take a brand’s temperature online, but to get serious, companies need to invest in paid tools that allow a deep level of analysis and workflow management to be incorporated into existing processes.  Companies such a Visible Technologies, Techrigy, Buzzmetrics and Radian6 provide enterprise grade solutions for listening, and identifying conversations and then engaging in a positive and meaningful way.

The steps to mind the social media gap can be summarised as

LISTEN – Identify passionate and authentic brand influencers and activistsIs anyone online actually having conversations about my brand, product or service?

  • What are they discussing?
  • Is what they are saying good, bad or indifferent?
  • Who are these people having these conversations? Are they influential?
  • Where do they tend to congregate?

LEARN – Assess conversation volume about your brand, find audiences who care about your offerings, uncover new business opportunities

  • What is driving conversation of my brand?
  • What are the perceived characteristics of my brand and my competitor’s brands?
  • What are the opportunities to improve brand perception?

ENGAGE – Participate in conversations about your brand and engage influencers and advocates

  • Your product advocates are levers for your success
  • Arm them with information, reward them for their loyalty and respect them by considering their input and using it
  • Give advocates some recognition, and value and measure their impact
  • Detractors need and deserve respect as well – you may be able to convert them to an advocate by engaging directly with them

INTEGRATE – Enhance your existing operational and marketing strategies to take advantage of this new and real-time communications channel between brands and consumers.  Existing measurement metrics need to be expanded to include

  • Brand buzz: Who’s talking about your brand right now and what’s the tone?
  • Influence: Are complaints or praises coming from isolated individuals or people with a huge following and hence influence?
  • Reach: How far are your messages spreading?
  • Virality: What is the speed at which a conversation moves throughout the social media ecosystem?

Social media has provided consumers with the tools and a platform to have their opinions heard and acted upon like never before.  Brands need to ensure they have adequate resources to join the conversation, while minding the gap between the promise offered by marketing, and the service delivered by the operations and customer support teams.