Randy Fordice hit the office one recent Monday, figuring hed blow off steam on Twitter about his inability to get an on-demand movie from Comcast the previous night. Once it was off his chest, he assumed hed be done.
Wrong. Comcast tweeted back.
Fordice and a Comcast worker exchanged messages, and by the end of the day, Comcast not only had apologized but also had traced the problem to one of its servers, thanked Fordice for pointing out the problem so it could fix it for everyone and told him to try again.
I was impressed it went from a Twitter message to an actual conversation to research to fixing the problem to a follow-up phone call, said Fordice, who is immersed in social media himself as a communications specialist for Great River Energy in Maple Grove.
The exchange is a sign of these social media times. Businesses, acknowledging the power and ubiquity of social media, are moving beyond just tweeting about themselves to eavesdropping on their customers, too.
Done right, companies can act on what they hear to improve customer service, polish their image and even glean valuable insights into their markets from a gold mine of data, experts say.
Done wrong, the viral nature of the Internet can turn one ill-considered comment into a nuclear hand grenade you cant let go of. Think Wile E. Coyote.
I think the Target debacle this summer put all companies on notice that the elephant in the room is social media, said Heather LaMarre, an assistant
professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Minnesota.
When the Minneapolis-based discount retail giant donated $150,000 to a political action committee that benefited Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage, dismayed Target employees began questioning the company. Then angry Target customers picked up the protest using social media like YouTube and Facebook.
The result was a financial and public relations meltdown as the protests blossomed into a call for a boycott. The company lost $1.3 billion in stock market capitalization at one point as its stock price skidded for a week, and its normally high BrandWeek BrandIndex buzz score dropped by a third over the course of 10 days despite an Aug. 5 apology by CEO Gregg Steinhafel. Target declined to comment for this story.
If Target gave the same amount of money four years ago, there would be a few disgruntled employees and maybe an op-ed piece written. But social media is a many-to-many communications tool, and its not controlled. Corporations have lost the gate-keeping effect, LaMarre said.
So companies are starting to pay keen attention to whats being said about them on the blogosphere. The catch used to be that it was information that mostly was out of the earshot of the business.
Until maybe now.
HANDBAGS AND TEA LEAVES
Im not tech-savvy at all. I make and sell handbags, said Emily Ironi, co-founder of Alexis Hudson Inc., a high-end handbag maker in Santa Monica, Calif., that sells its goods at Neiman Marcus and boutiques.
On the recommendation of her business partner, Rachelle Copeland, who lives and works in Minneapolis, Alexis Hudson Inc. hired Minneapolis marketing company Hello Viking to comb the Web for mentions of its handbags or other fashion news of note.
The idea was to pick the most interesting items and post their links in a constantly updated Handbag and Fashion Buzz column.
The business badly needed a social media buzz machine, but it wasnt something Ironi or Copeland wanted to take on. Were in the fashion world. We like pretty, tangible things, Ironi said, adding with a pause: Technology is abstract.
Hello Viking spun off the technology it uses as a separate start-up, called Curation Station.
Located off Hennepin Avenue in a scuffed-up office above an ice cream shop, Curation Station is trying to compete with an explosion of similar services, some from start-ups like itself and others from better established brands such as Dow Jones, Nielsen, Radian6 and Cymfony.
They perform similar functions, namely scouring the Web, using keywords to find mentions of business and products or industry news and then assembling their findings on a screen to be picked over by the client.
In the tech world, this is data mining, which sounds harsh and industrial. In the swirling bazaar of social media, its called curating.
The term is borrowed from the art world, because in the end, someone has to exercise judgment and, perhaps, taste to sort through the items worthy of posting or response.
Social media had just started happening, Curation Station co-founder Jennifer Iwanicki recalled, and companies would ask us, What do we do with all this content were finding about ourselves?
Iwaniki and her business partner Joseph Rueter started sketching out the features theyd need in 2008, founded Curation Station last year and landed their first sale this January.
The pair believe the tool speeds up the time-consuming process of finding and posting relevant content. It puts that content into searchable playlists that can be posted with a click, Rueter said.
The Tea Garden in Minneapolis, another Curation Station client, values an invisible social media trick: the ability to aggregate data.
That sounds technical, but for Dan Kent, co-owner of the chain of five tea shops, it boils down to lists.
Curation Station set up channels for different categories like bubble tea, and it scours the blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr for people who mention tea.
He used that function to sign up followers in Madison, Wis., so if Kent opens a restaurant there and he wants to he has a readymade client list.
Its not a hard-sell strategy, though. What I tell people is that if you have bad social skills, youre going to have bad social media skills.
Even play-it-safe businesses are drawn to social media but approach it like its nitroglycerin. So Brian Kennett hits the road for Shoreview-based Deluxe Corp. to train the check makers best customers banks how not to blow themselves up.
It doesnt have to be a cumbersome process. You can do it in 15 minutes a day, said Kennett, who is vice president of Deluxe Corp.s PartnerUp division, an online networking community for small businesses and entrepreneurs Deluxe bought two years ago.
PartnerUp is set up to help its 190,000 members find useful advice, and Deluxe wanted to help banks who buy its checks connect with PartnerUp members through social media, Kennett said while on a trip through Ohio and Michigan recently.
His cardinal rule for the banks: Dont respond to something if you cant help them with it, but if you do reach out and you can do something, get them to the right team quickly.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, tech-savvy road warriors react well when their social-media musings are picked up, said Emberly Hermann-Johnson, public affairs and marketing specialist at the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
Besides using a third-party service to troll the information on MSP Airport for a daily report, she checks Twitter on her mobile phone every two hours.
Sometimes, the tweets are questions like, Are there any restaurants outside of security? (Houlihans, she tweeted back) or complaints about a lack of power outlets (she will tweet locations of power-equipped seats).
Her three-person team also trained five paging service representatives the ones who handle the white courtesy telephone messages to respond to Twitter this year.
Mayo Clinic has created an online Center for Social Media to train its employees and other medical clinics about social media, said Lee Aase, manager of social media and syndication for Mayo.
Instead of combing the Internet for patients, the Rochester medical center uses social media to let them come to it. The hospital posts podcasts and Web pages on rare diseases that get search hits.
One mother wrote on the Mayo blog about how her teen-age daughters symptoms, which included constant vomiting, had stumped local doctors. Then she found a YouTube video by a Mayo physician on one of his patients with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.
Well, it was like someone had told me I just won the lottery. Here was a teenage girl who sounded exactly like my daughter getting help from this doctor, who was researching this syndrome, which seemed treatable with medicine, diet, exercise, etc. I nearly screamed! the woman wrote.
CREEPY VERSUS SPOOKY
Best Buy, the technology retailer, is considered by many to have some of the strongest social media outreach.
Besides using free tools like Google Alerts and paid services to monitor the Web, Richfield-based Best Buy has organized online communities. The most recent is Twelpforce, more than 2,500 blue shirt customer service reps who respond to tweets from customers while walking the floors of Best Buys stores.
By digging into its community blogs, Best Buy uncovers reoccurring questions and posts answers for the entire community, saving everyone time, said Gina Debogovich, a senior manager who works in the contact center.
For instance, one Best Buy community connector noticed a lot of questions about the iPhone 4 before its launch this year, so he created a frequently asked questions column in mid-June and tweeted it out.
It was viewed more than 150,000 times, Debogovich said.
Its all about listening and being proactive, she said.
Jim Cueme, director of interactive marketing at General Mills, compared business reaction to social media to their discovery of the telephone a century ago.
All of a sudden, your customers could call you! And talk to you! he said after a recent panel discussion on social media sponsored by The Collaborative, a business group.
Thus was born the corporate call center. Companies now are setting up similar centers to listen in on social media, he observed.
There is an obvious danger to eavesdropping, of course.
Its like youre at a cocktail party and youre eavesdropping and you hear someone mention a particular product and you come up to them and say, Hi, weve got one of those we can sell you creeeepy! , said Robert Stephens, the charmingly motor-mouthed chief technology officer at Best Buy, who also was on the panel.
Better, he advised, to be spooky. As in spooky-smart.
That means noticing someones complaint and offering to help. Then you anticipate or guess the persons desires or needs all of which would be sifted out from a database of past interactions and geo-location technology by massively smart software, Stephens said.
Then people say, How did you know that?
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