Learning Social Media Tricks From the Big Boys

By MELINDA F. EMERSON

If you still have doubts about whether social media marketing can be effective, here’s a quote from a recent Bain & Company study that you might find interesting: “Customers who engage with companies over social media spend 20 percent to 40 percent more money with those companies than other customers. They also demonstrate a deeper emotional commitment to the companies, granting them an average 33 points higher net promoter score, a common measure of customer loyalty.”

Among those that have figured this out are some very large companies. Whole Foods Markets, for example, is all over Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. “We talk about shared interests with customers,” said Natanya Anderson, who is the chain’s social media and community team leader. “We have lifestyle conversations at the brand level, and on a local level we showcase the folks behind the store, highlight local partners and in- season produce.”

The goal, Ms. Anderson said, is to create a virtual window into the stores through social media. “Your customers shop with you for a reason,” she said. “How can you extend that with things other than direct product pitches? It’s all about the connection, and anyone with a local footprint has the opportunity to make a local connection.”

One important point: Whole Foods gives its employees license to think individually. “We recommend to our local store marketers that they spend 25 percent of their time on developing content and 75 percent on engagement,” she said. “And that can work for small businesses, too.” For retailers, Ms. Anderson suggests using social media to bring a store’s personality to life — but that doesn’t mean trying to do everything. “You really don’t need to do every social media site,” she said. “It’s important to figure out which channel is going to help you the most. Give yourself a break.”

One of the challenges in social media is not becoming a “me, too” brand. “Focus on promoting what’s next,” said Frank Eliason, who runs global social media for Citigroup. “Lead the way as opposed to following.”

Mr. Eliason, who wrote “At Your Service: How to Attract New Customers, Increase Sales, and Grow Your Business Using Simple Customer Service Techniques” after managing @ComcastCares for Comcast, said he believes there are four factors that can help a small business use social media:

  • Be remarkable.
  • Listen to your customers everywhere, not just in social media.
  • Engage with your customers.
  • Make it easy for your customers to have conversations about things important to them.

While not all businesses are naturally remarkable, they can all be interesting. It’s about the story you tell about your business. Focus on your secret sauce and your business will seem remarkable. “But if every brand is creating content, it’s content overload,” Mr. Eliason said. “Other sources may be more trusted. You need the right balance, which is getting others to talk for you.”

One of the first big companies to strike a good balance among public relations, listening and selling on social media was Dell. Cory Edwards, Dell’s social media director, said he thought the most important factor in being successful on social media was to really listen to your customers and show them you are using their feedback to change the way you do business.

Dell has more than 25,000 mentions online every day (in English alone). Dell’s social media command center monitors its online mentions 24/7 in 14 languages worldwide through its @DellCares feed on Twitter. Among other things, Mr. Edwards said, Dell has used social media to get feedback on quality issues, to identify support needs as they happen, to find out about business issues before they become overwhelming in the media and to connect with people who influence others. Sales have increased especially through the company’s @DellOutlet feed on Twitter.

One of the interesting things Dell has done is to engage with its biggest detractors in social media. Once a year, it invites 10 of its loudest critics on an all-expenses-paid trip to Austin, Tex., for a meeting the company calls Customer Advisory Panel Days.  At the meeting, the detractors get to tell Dell representatives what they dislike. The company also invites 10 enthusiastic  fans to come and share feedback and insights at the same event (here’s a video about the feedback). ”We’ve done this event for the past few years,” Mr. Edwards said, “and we followed up with these people to let them know how their feedback changed us.”

It went so well that the company has hosted reunion events with the same people. “The key is how much do you want to act on what you learn,” he added, “and small businesses can do this, too, with feedback from customers.”

Melinda Emerson is founder and chief executive of Quintessence Multimedia, a social media strategy and content development company. You can follow her on Twitter.