Customers have been trying to express themselves—their preferences, their complaints, their gratitude—to companies for thousands of years. That’s no exaggeration: this February, NewScientist reported on a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet almost 4,000 years old that tells the tale of an unsatisfied customer. According to a translation of the tablet, a client named Nanni grumbles about the poor quality of some copper ingots he purchased, and demands a hasty refund from the vendor.
Thankfully, we’ve graduated from using blocks of clay to air our grievances.
These days, companies and their customers converse over social networks, from internal platforms customized for specific businesses to the behemoths of our age like Facebook and Twitter. And while the world of tweets and selfies may seem trivial at first against a corporate context, it’s become ever more evident that companies wielding their social presences effectively have a tangible advantage over their peers.
Plus, companies aren’t simply fielding complaints over social networks. They promote products, gauge customer sentiment, celebrate milestone events and achievements and announce changes in service. Social business is a two-way communications line between company and customer that helps shed the traditional identity of each: suddenly individuals are important enough to gain the attention of a brand, while a company can shrink its focus onto a single customer.
Take the airline industry for example. Airlines need to keep their customers informed and appeased on a real-time basis, since the flawless and timely execution of a flight itinerary is a matter as fickle as the weather (and often dependent on it). A recent study by Engagement Labs examined which airlines are most skilled at utilizing their social media accounts. American Airlines, which announced record profits in the final quarter of 2014, placed first in respect to both Facebook and Twitter.
What makes American Airlines so good at social media? “The airline not only provides company information, it also posts about worldwide news and events and relates it back to the industry,” says Engagement Labs. “For example, to celebrate Women’s History Month, they asked followers to share stories about female American Airlines members who have shown great customer service.” Social media should feel more like a natural dialogue than a marketing campaign, and American Airlines has figured that out.
Within the oil and gas industry, Royal Dutch Shell fuels its advertising endeavors with robust social media performance. The company was ranked first in social media in a recent review of oil and gas industries by Exploration World, a digital magazine that focuses on the energy sector. Royal Dutch Shell uses Youtube, among other networks, to host quirky but charming videos that promote eco-conscious energy solutions for the future. These videos, further disseminated through other social networks, paint the company green while engaging their customers at the same time.
There’s more than just anecdotal proof that social media use at the enterprise level is on the rise. Two recent studies by the IBM Center for Applied Insights show that social business and the advantages it brings are both trending upward. Raising the game: The IBM Business Tech Trends Study demonstrates that social use is up 106 percent in the past two years. The study shows that leading companies—called “pacesetters”—are six times more likely to improve customer experience via social, and three times more likely to expand into new markets. These companies don’t stop at just using social media. They examine its impact as well: pacesetters are six times more likely to use social media analytics.
Another of the Center’s studies, Charting the social universe, identified additional goals of social business, such as building the workforce and driving external collaboration, and found that over 90 percent of companies aiming for those objectives met or surpassed their expectations. What these studies and recent appraisals of social media performance indicate is that social business isn’t just a fad. It’s got a legitimate role at the enterprise level, and it also is beneficial for customers, who now have a fast and fluid medium to interact with companies.
The only downside is that this technology wasn’t around six millennia ago—if only Nanni could have tweeted out his gripe about copper ingots instead of engraving it into a clay tablet.