Friday, December 30, 2011

Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors - Part 1


[This post is part 1 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors.  This post introduces the concept of social media-enabled brand ambassadors and sets the tone for the series of posts that will follow.]

We’ve heard it hundreds, maybe thousands of times – “Our employees are our greatest asset.”  When it comes to business-speak, this phrase has become one of the most overused expressions in the trade.  From annual reports to media interviews to company rah-rah events, these words always find a way to make themselves at home.  Yet no matter how trite we believe the phrase to be, it is true.  There is no denying that in business there is little that can be done without human capital.  That’s because regardless of technological advancements or an organization’s name, size, products, or services, people buy from people!  This point is especially critical in the post-Occupy Wall Street era where humanity, honesty, and transparency have become the new expectation for business.

Many organizations have known for a long time of the value that is created by employees that evangelize on behalf of the organization.  These employees are commonly referred to as brand ambassadors.  Research and surveys have repeatedly found that brand ambassadors boost an organization’s reputation resulting in improved profitability.  As a result of their excitement, knowledge, loyalty, and commitment to the organization and its products and services, brand ambassadors create excitement and loyalty among customers.  As such, brand ambassadors act as incredibly effective influencers.  More effective than the best advertising. 

An excellent representation of the ideal brand ambassador is “Flo,” the customer service representative in Progressive Insurance commercials.  Flo is so effective that current commercials portray her luring to Progressive Insurance executives from a competing insurance company.  This is the employee brand ambassador concept at its best.  According to a Business Courier article by Ric Sweeney (“Brand Ambassadors’ Give Your Business A Boost”) “All employees, regardless of function or title, are key ambassadors for your company’s products and services.  Once motivated by senior management to believe in the company and its products/services, employees can utilize their network of friends and colleagues to grow the company’s circle of influence.”

Author Ronald J. Alsop tells a story in his book, “The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation,” (Free Press, 2004) about Larry Fish, former Chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group.  Alsop says “Larry Fish is rare among CEOs in that he recognizes the value of employees to corporate reputation and makes them his goodwill ambassadors.  It’s the employees who are on the front lines working with customers, suppliers, shareholders, government officials, and other audiences.  They must be your loyal allies because their effect on your reputation is immense.  They can be your biggest fans or your worst enemies.”

While the characteristics (excited, loyal, and knowledgeable) of the brand ambassadors noted in Alsop’s 2004 book are the very same characteristics that embody today’s brand ambassadors, the manner in which they influence has evolved.  Historically, brand ambassadors conducted their influencing activities primarily through face-to-face interactions.  These interactions took place at their offices, civic meetings, places of worship, and anywhere else someone was willing to listen to them.  Brand ambassadors are successful influencers not because they are great salespeople but because they love what they do and who they do it for.  Their ability to influence is the result of their passion – as well as the positive reputation of the organization, product, or service.

While today’s brand ambassadors still possess excitement, loyalty, and knowledge, they are no longer confined to face-to-face activities.  Through social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, today’s brand ambassadors can influence a much broader audience.  Social media enables brand ambassadors to influence not only their neighbors across the street but also those living across the country and across the world.

Facebook, the 800-pound social media gorilla, boasts over 800 million active users.  Active users maintain an average of 130 “friends” on their Facebook social network.  Twitter, another dominant social network, maintains over 100 million active users.  LinkedIn, the social network of choice for business professionals, maintains over 135 million active users.  And these numbers do not reflect the millions of users that belong to other social networks such as YouTube, Google+, Foursquare, MySpace, and hundreds of others.  A cadre of social media-enabled brand ambassadors can produce results significantly better than was possible just a few years ago.

According Inc. Magazine blogger Eric Markowitz  (“How To Find The Right Employees To Be Your Brand Ambassadors”), “In order to fully realize – and leverage – an employee’s full value, a successful company needs to find creative ways to tap into its employees’ networks (both online and offline).  Brand ambassadors, or employee evangelists, are becoming an increasingly common way for brands to leverage their biggest asset – their workforce, of course – to reach new markets, generate buzz, and put a real face on the company.”  Schwartz Communications blogger Allison VanNest states on the Schwartz Crossroads blog (“Must Love Snacking: Empowering BrandAmbassadors Through Social Media”) that “Employees are becoming more engaged as company influencers.”

Regardless of the demonstrated value that comes from an excited, loyal, and knowledgeable cadre of employees, there is often a discrepancy between the message delivered by the organization through its marketing efforts and the message delivered by its employees.  This discrepancy is the result of the organization’s failure to formally train and deploy its employees as part of the organization’s overall branding strategy.  This failure on the part of the organization denies the customer, employee, and organization an opportunity to maximize the benefit received.  The customer misses an opportunity to receive the best possible attention.  The employee misses the opportunity to play a larger role in the success of the organization.  And the organization misses an opportunity to develop a deeper and more valuable relationship with the customer.  The organization’s failure also ensures that employees lack the excitement, loyalty, and knowledge necessary to become effective influencers.  The negative impact of this failure is compounded when the organization does not make use of the leverage provided by social media platforms.

Logical String blogger Mayank Krishna concludes (“Employees As Brand Ambassadors”) that this failure causes customers and potential customers to question whether “The brand is true to what it is projecting or are there things deeper than what meets the eye?”  Krishna attributes the lack of employee influence-ability to the fact that “In a majority of organizations, brand and branding is a domain that is considered the exclusivity of brand managers and marketing managers.  For an average employee, brand management doesn’t seem relevant and he/she is hardly aware of the nitty-gritty of the brands and brand management philosophies of his/her organization.”

As such, unless organizations create a formal Social Media-Based Employee Brand Ambassador Program to ensure that employees are well-trained brand evangelists, organizations will lose out on the potential benefit that comes from employees that decide to make it their mission to act as influencers for the organization.  A further risk is the competition.  To the extent that competitors develop their employees first, the organization puts its business at risk.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Managing Multiple Social Network Accounts

Banks that are new to social media or are determining how best to jump into social media eventually ask the following question: “Should we start with one social network or several?”  The answer?  It depends.

All things being equal, being active on multiple social networks is better than one.  Unfortunately, all things are not equal and resources, both human and financial, play a role in the ultimate look and feel of any social media strategy – including the number of social networks on which a bank participates.

According to the ReadyBuzz blog, “the biggest mistake most businesses make is to only use one social media platform.  In most cases, they either choose Twitter or Facebook. The truth is, one just isn’t enough.”  Many social media users maintain two or more social media accounts.  In many cases these accounts are established when the user first visits the social network as part of a curiosity or through the referral by an acquaintance.  However, regardless of many users’ maintenance of multiple social media accounts, users are not equally active on each social network.  As such, users may only access one account on a regular basis and largely ignore the others.  This means that a bank that focuses its social media efforts on a single social network risks missing out on a large portion of social media users that use other platforms.

Zmags blogger Christina Pappas recommends how to best utilize multiple social networks.  According to Pappas, “there are many social media channels and most of us use each channel with a slightly different spin.  The type of content we would Tweet is different than the content we may post to a Facebook Business Page.  Both of those formats may require a different twist than we’d offer on LinkedIn.”  Pappas makes the case for a strategy that differentiates the manner in which information is shared on each social network.

However, Inc. blogger J.J. McCorvey warns against biting off more than can be chewed.  According to McCorvey, “If you have enough staffing power to handle multiple social networking sites, that’s great.  If not, it’s important to focus on one or two, or you could spread yourself too thin and fall victim to the ‘gaping void’ perception, where you end up going days without activity.  Your followers will notice.”

Social Media Today blogger Mark Evans echoes McCorvey’s advice.  In one of his posts Evans recounts his advice to a small business.  According to Evans, “my reluctance to suggest a multi-pronged approach was mostly due to the lack of available resources.  The last thing I wanted to see was the company blast out with several Twitter accounts, only to see its efforts fail due to poor content or a lack of activity and engagement.

An example of the success that can be achieved through the use of multiple social networks is Starbucks.  Blonde 2.0 blogger Ayelet Noff credits Starbucks’ multipronged social media strategy as one of the reasons why Starbucks has been successful at creating millions of fans for the brand and keep them involved in the brand’s doings.  According to Noff, “The brand has created a digital dialogue with its customers, enabling people to give their feedback and receive a response back from Starbucks addressing their concerns/comments.  Starbucks is showing its customers and potential customers – ‘hey, we care about what YOU have to say.’  I am certain that if each one of these elements was done alone then the strategy would not have been as successful and complete as it is when done like this in integration with the rest of the elements on board.”

Amanda Brooke, Drop Ship News blogger, speaks to the advantages of multiple social networks by stating that “by working on your brand on the most popular social media sites such as Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, you can reach a much, much broader audience than traditional marketing methods.”  Social Media Today blogger Daulton West, Jr. goes on to say that “’listening’ to their customers, and creating conversations that span several social media sites, allows for communication that strengthens relationships for existing and potential customers.”

In the final analysis, while it appears desirable to maintain several social network accounts simultaneously, it is critical that the bank maintain a budget that provides for adequate staffing to ensure that the bank’s social media efforts add value.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Look Who's Talking: Facebook Engagement

Facebook recently began disclosing several key metrics on Facebook Pages to assist Page owners at-a-glance in assessing the success of their Facebook efforts and to assist visitors to the Page in determining how useful others have found the site in the past week.  These metrics are disclosed along the left side of the Page (they, along with other metrics, are also found on the Insights page).

The first metric indicates how many users Like the page.  Traditional Facebook marketing theory states that the bigger this number, the better.  That is why so many social media consultants go on about tactics to increase "Likes" as if he with the most Likes wins.  While I agree that all things being equal, more Likes is better than less Likes, I also believe that it's not the quantity of the Likes but rather the quality of the likes that will make a Facebook effort successful.

Social media is about social engagement.  Social engagement does not occur unless the Facebook effort provides value.  As such, it does not matter how many Likes a page has if the content is not engaging.  Without valuable content the community will ignore the page resulting in a wasted effort to attract the community.  In other words, a Page with 100,000 Likes that was created through some effective marketing effort will not help the bank if none of the 100,000 users visit the Page on a regular basis.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of a Page's community, Facebook provides the number of users that have "talked about" the Page in the past seven days.  This "talking about" statistic is fairly meaningful as it states the number of users that have engaged with the Page (e.g., brand) in some form.  Activity that is included in the Talking About statistic includes users that:

  • "Liked" the page
  • "Liked," commented on, or shared a Page post
  • Answered a Question on the Page
  • Responded to an Event 
  • Mentioned the Page
  • Tagged the Page in a photo
  • Checked in or recommended the Page location
In the examples below you see two sets of data taken from two banks - one small bank and one mid-size bank.

The bank on the left has only 409 Likes and the bank on the right has over 2,500% more at 10,850 Likes.  A natural conclusion based on the Like data may be that the mid-size bank has created a more valuable Facebook asset.  However, a review of the "talking about this" number suggests that while the mid-size bank has more likes, the absolute number of users that have engaged with the bank is identical.  As such, either the mid-size bank has a bunch of uninterested followers or the small bank has an active bunch of followers.

So why is having as many users talking about the bank so critical? Well, it is the active and engaged users that are most likely to support and evangelize for the bank.  These active users will tap into their social networks and inform their friends and acquaintances of the reasons why they should support the bank.  In addition,  new visitors to a Facebook page can look at these two metrics to understand how popular, active and engaging the Page is and as a result, whether it is one that they wish to follow.  Losing out on an opportunity to engage new users results in a loss of not only that user but of that user's social network.

While banks should seek as many Likes as possible, they should also examine the number and percentage of followers that are engaging with the bank.  If too few are engaging then the bank is not providing adequate content.  This may result from too infrequent posts, too many "salesy" posts, too frequent posts, uninteresting posts, etc.  It should be the job of the Facebook admin(s) to analyze the data to figure out how to best convert the nonengaged users into engaged users.  Once users become engaged then their networks may also become engaged, and at that point the Facebook page may provide significant value.  However, until engagement occurs, the Facebook page becomes that question about whether a tree falling in the woods makes any noise:  if a Facebook page with tons of users creates no engagement does it provide value?  Very little.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What To Do With Those Repos? Facebook Them!

During these tough economic times it is not uncommon for consumer banks that originate auto loans - particularly used auto loans - to have to pick up a repossession or two. In many cases banks will dispose of the autos through wholesale auctions or wholesale transactions with used auto dealers. Depending on the car and the outstanding balance, sales through auctions or directly to dealers will result in marginal to significant write offs, as the banks are forced to accept deep discounts.

Fortunately, with the purchase of a fairly low cost video camera and video editing software, banks can now create and distribute videos through social networks in an effort to connect directly with consumers and obtain retail sales prices on their repossessed autos - and possibly provide the financing to qualified borrowers.

After exploring its options, Pan American Bank (my employer) in Los Angeles initiated a social media-based program that distributes videos on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms to publicize its repossessed used autos.  Through the use of in-house videos, Pan American Bank is able to achieve several goals:

  1. Publicize the sale of its repossessed autos directly to retail buyers, reducing/eliminating the losses  experienced from wholesale transactions.
  2. Create a following among consumers seeking quality used autos.
  3. Increase the Bank's visibility. 

As the cost of  video equipment and video editing software has fallen sharply (most cell phones provide video capability), many individuals have become pro-am videographers.  If your organization has little to no budget, a great place to begin a search for a video expert is within your organization.  A simple e-mail blast to employees asking for experienced videographers may result in one or more in-house resources.  This will reduce costs and increase flexibility.  If an in-house resource is not available, inquire with students at local high schools and colleges. Finally, call on video services.  If budget is not a problem you may want to seek a professional right away.  However, you may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of employees.