Monday, March 28, 2011

Where Advocacy Comes From (Hint: Not Social Media) (Part 2 of 2)

Disclosure: I am an employee of USAA:

As noted in Part 1 of this blog post, USAA has earned a high level of advocacy from its members, but what is the recipe for producing advocacy such as this? If you listen to social media pros, you might think that advocacy was some recently discovered "secret sauce" that required Facebook, Twitter and online communities as a key ingredient. At this year's sxsw conference, for example, more than 20 sessions included the terms "advocacy" and "advocates" in the title or description.

Engaging with people on Facebook and responding to member requests on Twitter contribute to USAA's overall customer satisfaction, but that isn't where the company's advocacy starts. Nor is it created with great products and services; while that is an unavoidable piece of the advocacy puzzle for any enterprise, it is an effect rather than a cause. Instead, consumer advocacy starts with corporate culture--who is hired, how employees are trained and rewarded, the understanding of and commitment to customer needs, the priorities and tone set by leaders and the constant reinforcement of company mission. Those are the building blocks of brand advocacy.

If social media is only a contributing factor to customer advocacy, why do social media professionals so often talk about it?  There are multiple answers to this question that run the gamut from justifiable to not.

A legitimate reason for social media pros to focus on advocacy is that social channels are a place where strong customer affinity can be leveraged to produce better business results. A happy customer telling a friend is a good thing, but a happy customer telling 100 friends (and 500 strangers) is even better.  Tapping and multiplying existing customer sentiment is a key benefit of smart social media strategies.

But there can also be a tendency by some social media gurus to overstate their role in producing advocacy. Because sentiment is so easily (if unscientifically) measured in social channels, some social media professionals crow about increases in positive sentiment for their brands as if no one else in the organization produces communications, speaks with customers or contributes in ways that touch consumers. Even worse, I've seen social media pros and agencies pay for fans and friends by offering giveaways and discounts and then brag about how they increased "advocacy." As my friends at Zuberance often say, there is a big difference between a Facebook fan, a loyal customer and an advocate

I'm not suggesting that what social media professionals do isn't important to fostering advocacy, but if they are the only ones talking about advocacy within the four walls of an enterprise, the company has a serious problem that cannot be solved solely with externally-facing social media strategies. Social media strategists are miners and jewelry designers, not alchemists--we explore social venues for existing veins of advocacy gold and then turn it into something even more functional and beautiful, but we cannot manufacture gold where none is found.

My team and I are working on ways to foster more advocacy in social channels, but I know our primary job is to amplify the advocacy created by so many others within USAA. I'll never stop appreciating the contribution of every employee within the organization, from the leaders who keep the focus on the mission to the MSRs (Member Service Reps) who make the mission real in every customer contact. The positive sentiment we measure in social channels isn't the product of the dozens of people who contribute to USAA's social media efforts but the thousands who staff phones, answer emails or contribute in other ways. Social media advocacy is everyone's job!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This Is What Advocacy Looks Like (Part 1 of 2)

Disclosure: I am an employee of USAA:

In social media circles, the word "advocacy" is thrown around a lot, but what does it look like and where does it come from? I had a recent experience that answered these questions in clear fashion.

As you know if you read this blog, I recently had the good fortune to become part of USAA's social media team. I was eager to start posting on USAA's fan page, which, with over 140,000 likes, is the most popular insurance page and among the top financial services pages on Facebook. Once I was added as an administrator, I introduced myself with a post:
Hello USAA friends. I'd like to introduce myself: My name is Augie Ray and I'm a new member of USAA's social media team. I'm excited to be part of USAA's mission to facilitate the financial security of members, associates and their families. I also want to take this opportunity to thank servicemembers and family members for their service and sacrifice. Your commitment inspires my commitment here at USAA! - Augie
The speed of the reaction was breathtaking; in just three minutes, the post received 50 likes and seven positive comments. Within a day or so, 464 people clicked "like" and 93 comments were received, the vast majority of them welcoming and supportive. While this represents just a fraction of a percent of the USAA fan base, the numbers are quite impressive when you consider most insurance and financial companies are lucky to get more than a couple dozen likes or comments for an average post.

And then there's the sentiment expressed--comments such as:
  • I love USAA as my insurance company and my bank. Truly a great organization.
  • You are in the best organization of its type in the USA!
  • Welcome to the family -- as you can tell from the comments, we're the USAA family!
  • Thank you to the greatest company in the world!!!
  • If usaa was a church, I would be a member.
  • I love my bank!
How many financial institutions earn a comment like "I love my bank" even once?  In fact, USAA fans used the word "love" nine times in those 93 comments, demonstrating a level of passion to which most brands aspire. 

This experience got me to thinking more about social media's role in advocacy, and I came the conclusion we social media professionals can overstate our own importance in the advocacy equation.  Check back tomorrow for the second part of my blog post on advocacy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why You (and the People You Know) Need LinkedIn Now

If you regularly read this blog or others like it, this post is not for you; it's for you to send to the people you know who think they have no need for professional social media.  Considering that just around 40 million people in the United States are registered on LinkedIn, chances are that you know several people who have avoided the business networking site.  For professionals, the time has come to get connected.

A friend's experience inspired this blog post. She was happy and secure in her job and saw no need to maintain a LinkedIn profile, foster a network, collect recommendations or join LinkedIn groups.  Then she was unexpectedly laid off and joined the 13.7 million people who are unemployed in the United States. At a time when being noticed is tougher than ever and working your network is vital to discovering openings and snagging interviews, my friend is starting from square one.

Her lack of a profile or network puts her at a disadvantage compared to people who can get the word out to a wide network. Of course, email can be used to broadcast a message, but LinkedIn offers something far more valuable--the ability to see and leverage connections for introductions, referrals and information.  Krista Canfield, spokeswoman for LinkedIn, recently noted, “There may be hundreds and hundreds of other people applying for the same position you are. But if you know someone, a personal referral is like a golden ticket that can put your resume on top.”

LinkedIn helped me to prepare for my interviews at USAA before I landed my new job. I found I was connected to a person who used to work on social media at USAA and that he was a "2nd degree contact," which means we share a mutual LinkedIn contact. I asked for an introduction via LinkedIn and arranged a phone call. The insight I gathered helped me to ask better questions during the interview process and gain confidence the position at USAA was right for me.

Participating on LinkedIn can provide professional assistance and education for the employed, but for the unemployed it offers a great many benefits. Aside from the ability to work a network for information and introductions, LinkedIn users can:

My friend without a LinkedIn profile is not alone, especially among older adults.  According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, while 86% of those age 18 to 29 use social networking sites, just 47% of those 50 to 64 do the same.  

Avoiding LinkedIn is increasingly a poor and short-sighted decision for professionals. Doing so not only isolates you from vital information, it also puts you on the wrong side of a new and troubling social divide--it is a bright, neon sign that tells peers, bosses and potential employers that you are failing to embrace new technology and communication methods.  Much as virtually every employee today must be web savvy, employers increasingly will need and seek out people who demonstrate at least rudimentary knowledge and skills in using social tools.

It can take months to build a healthy LinkedIn network, but it takes less than an hour to create a robust profile, the first step in the LinkedIn process. There's little excuse to get started today.  Check out the LinkedIn New User Starter Guide for tips on how to get underway.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Next Big Thing is...

I just returned from South by Southwest (sxsw) Interactive. It seemed everyone wanted to know "the next big thing"--what new site, app or technology would rise above the din of startups in Austin and get launched into mainstream in the same manner that Twitter and Foursquare had in recent years.

It seemed the biggest buzz at this year's sxsw was group messaging, services that allow users to create and send SMS and other messages to lists of people. GroupMe and Beluga appeared to attract the most buzz, but a host of other group messaging startups were vying for attention.

Group messaging may, in fact, grab some users, but it isn't "the next big thing." Nor is Quora, Groupon, Hashable or the host of other consumer-facing sites that have gotten so much attention (and attracted obscene valuations) in recent months. (Quora, a site with only a third of a million unique visitors monthly, was reportedly valued at $1 billion recently--around $3,000 per unique user.)  Even technologies that seem destined for wide adoption--such as QR codes and Near Field Communications--are not "the next big thing."  While all of these sites and technologies offer exciting opportunities in the coming years, none will (in isolation) fundamentally alter the way the masses communicate, research, share, decide or buy.

So what is "the next big thing"? It is no one site or tool but all of them, connected by one thread that will define the next decade:  Social media. 

Social media is and will remain the next big thing for years to come.  Need evidence?  Consider, with the benefit of hindsight, what "the next big thing" was in 1999.  By then, most enterprises had launched their first web site and were wondering what the next big thing would be.  Of course, in the years that followed, the Web continued to evolve and Internet investment grew exponentially--the Web remained "the next big thing" for well over a decade.

And now consider where we are today with social media. It's been less than five years since Facebook opened its doors to the masses, and two short years since it passed the 200-million active user mark.  For many brands, 2011 is the first year social media is not relegated to an "experimental" budget, and most companies still consider it a channel simply for marketing and communications rather than a crucial part of product and service.  Much as the Web did in the years since 1999, social will continue to change, disrupt and define business processes for the next decade.

As for which company will be "the next big thing," it won't be one business but many, and the ones that matter won't be headline-grabbing consumer sites with hundreds of millions of customers but less flashy enterprises that help to power the social web for hundreds of corporate clients.  Again, one can look at the Internet experience for guidance. Following the dot-com bubble bust, the companies that came roaring back were the ones that facilitated Web operations.  Since mid 2002, the S&P 500 is up 54% while companies like SAP, Oracle, Rackspace, Sybase and are up 225% or more.

Just as SAP and Rackspace did for the Web, the hot companies of the next decade will  be the ones that make social media manageable for the enterprise. Categories include community platform vendors (such as Lithium and Jive), social media management systems (such as Syncapse, Spredfast and Cotweet/ExactTarget) and social media listening platforms (such as Radian6, Converseon, Cymfony and Alterian).

A lot of failed corporate strategy and investment dollars will go to waste chasing "the next big thing" in the years to come.  That's too bad, considering "the next big thing" is as obvious as the nose on your face (or the 1.3 million years people spend on Facebook each month).