One of the trends I’ve been watching is the emergence of social networking sites as customer communications channels. Social networking is where a good number of consumers (meaning people who buy things) talk about what they want and what they like. Younger people especially use these outlets as a primary communication platform, preferring to leave a comment on Facebook or to tweet on Twitter instead of sending e-mail or picking up the phone.
Social networking also provides a platform for amplification of content and messaging. Sharing is inherent in these platforms and amplification can happen at almost no cost. All that sharing also generates an enormous amount of information about customers, what they like, what they like to buy, how they want to buy, etc
Understanding what customers are doing and thinking, and engaging them where and how they want, is a great strategy. Except for one small problem…
When I talk to technology vendors about social networking channels, most of the conversation is concentrated on three properties – Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Given the enormous volume of people using these three platforms, that’s understandable. To put that in perspective, as of October 2012 Facebook had over 1B subscribers using the platform each month, roughly 1/7 of all the people on Earth.
Here’s where the problem lies. Unlike e-mail or the Internet in general, the bulk of social networking traffic is controlled by a small number of companies. The Internet itself is not in the hands of any one company or even a government (as several dictators have discovered recently). You can try and block it but you can’t make it do your bidding. Because of that, you can mostly trust the Internet and e-mail for engaging customers. By contrast, it is dangerous to trust your customer communications to a small number of companies that may become rivals at some point. Companies can decide to change APIs, alter privacy features, create constraints, and just plain shut you off on a whim. These social networking companies are, in essence, similar to 19th century trusts – companies that control a huge portion of the market, that can ignore typical competitive forces, and yet are unregulated and unlicensed. If Theodore Roosevelt were alive, he would be waving his big stick right at these companies.
For the marketer, sales executive, or customer service managers, this presents a quandary. You can’t ignore social networking – it’s what your customers are increasingly using to communicate with each other and with you. On the other hand, you have to be wary since your conduit to those customers is controlled by a corporate entity that may not care about the effect they have on your business, especially if you are not a significant paying customer of theirs.
So, don’t take social networking channels for granted. Make sure that your strategy includes but doesn’t rely too heavily on social networking outlets.