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May 17, 2017, by Sunita Tailor

#Follow4Follow: The Business of Social Media

You do not have to look far to find useful statistics to demonstrate the prevalent use of social media, across our working and social lives. Smart Insights for example, tells us that as of January 2017 there were 2.8 billion active social media users, a 21% increase on the number of users from the previous year. Businesses are well aware of the potential of social media for customer engagement, with Facebook announcing having reached 4 million advertisers through its platform. Almost as pervasive as the stats supporting the use of social media for business are the ‘How to’ guides offering essential tips on making use of social media, reminding us that engaging and interacting with customers through social media is in itself, a skill.

At a very basic level, businesses can capitalise on the potential of social media for global distribution: of its advertising, products and services. Mobile technology supports eCommerce and social media is the shopfront, enabling business to cut down on rented retail units, stay open 24/7 and operate at an international level. This helps to support SMEs and even individuals looking to build their brand.

The defining characteristics though of social media – in contrast to other platforms supported by online communication – revolve around interactivity and the contributions of those who ‘use’ the resource. Here, the voice of customers is presented in the same space as the company directors and staff, which presents both challenges and opportunities for negotiating ‘brand identity’ and visibility. Customers have a more developed role, evolving from consumer, to contributor, distributor and in some cases creator. Potentially, businesses have a ready and willing (free) workforce that will promote its products through social media, presented through some artistic filter and thereby offering the customer the means to enhance their own identity through affiliation with the brand.

Furthermore, there are opportunities for market research that would otherwise be unattainable. The pinnacle of this perhaps is ‘My Starbucks Idea’, which operates as a standalone website alongside a Twitter page and invites customers to make suggestions about changes/additions to the menu that other customers can vote on in order to have it realised in store. Ultimately, business practices can be made more transparent through social media: be it in the development of the products or in customer services.

It is a common occurrence now to see customer complaints being dealt with publicly via social media. In these exchanges, companies can show not only that they are doing the ‘transactional work’ of business in terms of managing payments and delivering goods, but also a great deal of ‘identity’ work in presenting a business persona. Thus when Marty Lawrence targeted Sainsbury’s in a Tweet that reported that he was unable to buy fish at one of their stores because it didn’t have a ‘bar cod’, what followed was an extended back-and-forth of fish-related puns with ‘David’ on the Sainsbury’s Twitter account. Followers flocked to the Waterstone’s Twitter thread when David Willis was inadvertently locked in a store after hours in order to follow the updates that led to his eventual release. Through such exchanges, companies can present a more personable image, as well as capitalising on the immediacy of social media messages.

Businesses have approached social media with some caution though, with many companies producing policy documents for employees on how they ought to conduct themselves in online spaces. Coca-Cola for example, refers to its employees as ‘ambassadors’ for the company and encourages them to ‘disclose [their] affiliation’, but makes clear that in relation to topics that ‘require subject matter expertise’ (listing ingredients, obesity, the Company’s environmental impacts and the Company’s financial performance as examples) employees should ‘avoid the temptation to respond to these directly unless [they] respond with approved messaging the Company has prepared for these topics’. This highlights an issue many of us have on social media, where those in our social circle, our work lives and beyond come together in a shared space. In this environment, it would seem that you do not leave your work at the office.

Social media offers businesses a space to improve customer relationships (as well as business relationships) and gain contributions from its customers across various business practices. There is much to be gained from a customer base willing to engage with these practices (without formal employment – or payment!) and offer honest feedback; businesses that engage with these platforms and can navigate them well will surely come to know its own practices and its customers all the better.

Dr Luke Collins
LiPP Teaching Associate

Posted in Online communication