Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors - Part 4

The Costs and Risks of Social Media Brand Ambassador Programs

[This post is part 4 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors.  This post focuses on the costs and risks associated with a brand ambassador program.]

Before an organization chooses to empower and unleash social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors to represent its brand and influence consumers, the organization should carefully consider the costs and risks associated with a social media-enabled brand ambassador program – or any social media effort.  

While social media accounts are generally free and can be created in less than 10 minutes, these accounts are of little use without the human capital (e.g., brand ambassadors) needed to add value to the organization’s social media efforts.  As such, every organization considering the use of social media-enabled brand ambassadors should conduct a risk assessment that will help to identify potential pitfalls which will ultimately protect the organization and ensure the success of the social media-based brand ambassador program.  The organization should use the results of the risk assessment in determining the appropriate strategy.

Bloomberg Businessweek writers Michelle Conlin and Douglas MacMillan address social media risks in their blog post, “Web 2.0: Managing Corporate Reputations.”  According to Conlin and MacMillan, “Social networking is a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand managers want their workers to experiment so they can cultivate new-world skills.  Employees as brand ambassadors!  Products virally transformed into overnight hits!  On the other hand, bosses are filled with foreboding about social networking’s dark side – losing secrets to rivals, the corporate embarrassment of errant employee tweets, becoming the latest victim of a venomous crowd.”

Regardless of the puffery taking place regarding the low- or no-cost features of social media implementations, organizations must not be fooled.  Social media properly implemented costs money.  As such, organizations must determine the social media strategy that best fits the organization’s risk appetite and budget.  In an effort to assist with this analysis the following section discusses the various risks and costs associated with social media implementations – including a social media-based brand ambassador program.

Commitment:  According to consultant Tony de Bree (www.TonydeBreeAdvies.nl), organizations have done a horrible job of taking care of their employees and customers.  “Clients nor employees believe those companies anymore. We are far from ‘how to turn your ex-employees into ambassadeors/promotors.’” 

Julie Arnsdorf, President of J. Arnsdorf & Company (jarnsdorf.blogspot.com), agrees with de Bree.  “It's similar to the proverbial tag of we have ‘quality products’ or ‘competitive rates’…it's just talk.  I've seen many marketing departments or ad agencies develop brilliant tag lines for an organization, but the organization never implements the tag line's sentiment throughout their business or bank.  It's simply a hollow statement.”

De Bree’s and Arnsdorf’s comments are not uncommon.  Over the course of the past several decades, organizations have lost credibility with their workers as a result of actions that have eliminated jobs and cut wages.  Most recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to light society’s discontent with the widening gap between the have and have-nots.

As a result of the natural skepticism of employees and customers, organizations seeking to implement a brand ambassador program must be committed to making the long-term investment necessary to win over both employees and customers.  Lip service is no longer adequate and will surely result in failure.

Expenses:  Many publications, consultants, Web sites and other sources refer to social media as a “no cost” or “low cost” undertaking.  This advice has the effect of misleading many organizations into believing that the implementation and maintenance of a social media strategy, including a social media-based brand ambassador program, is a largely inexpensive undertaking.

In a interview with SmartBlog blogger Sam Taute (“A LookAt Social Media Costs And Returns With Erik Qualman”), Socialnomics author Erik Qualman stated regarding social media implementations that “Over 50 percent of businesses found it was more work than they expected.  The most overlooked cost for big and small businesses is the soft-cost in terms of the hours employees must commit to engage properly in the space.”

Blogger Mark W. Schaefer presents a compelling, though potentially discouraging, argument for employee social media ambassadors.  In his post “The Hidden Costs of Social Media Conversation” Schaefer states about social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors, “Certainly this interaction can humanize a brand.  But at the end of the day, is paying your employees to be a psychotherapist to a lonely widow in Pittsburgh going to sell hamburgers?  Is that the company’s core business?  And when does it end?  Do you keep adding people to have infinite conversations?”  Schafer’s comments were in reference to an interview by McDonald’s Social Media Director Rick Wion regarding McDonald’s goal of initiating social media conversations.

Providing a less severe analysis is Brand Infection blogger Nader Cserny who states that “Social Media is affordable and you don’t need large marketing budgets.  The only main cost is time while developing relationships.”  While Nader’s conclusion is largely true, as stated by Schaefer, organizations must invest time and money to develop the depth and range of online relationships that meet the organization’s expectations.

Heidi Cohen provides on her blog (“How To Calculate Social Media Costs”) 10 types of social media marketing expenses that every organization should take into consideration when developing a social media strategy.  Heidi’s list is not specific to brand ambassadors.  It is a list that addresses the costs necessary to develop an environment in which brand ambassadors can operate.

    1. Brand Monitoring:  This expense relates to the act of “listening” to conversations on the Internet.  Costs can range from the software used to “listen” to the employee time spent “listening” to the time spent analyzing the conversations to the time spent producing reports.  As previously stated, brand monitoring is a key activity for all organizations.  Regardless of the organization’s decision to enter into social media, every organization at a minimum should actively listen to comments made on the Internet in an effort to better serve customers and take proactive measures, if applicable.  As such, all organizations should realistically budget for this item.

     2. People:  A social media-enabled brand ambassador program requires people.  In small and mid-sized organizations most brand ambassadors will maintain other positions within the firm and will act as brand ambassadors as time and opportunity permits.  In large organizations, brand ambassadors may be dedicated social media-enabled brand ambassadors whose responsibility is to comb the social media universe for branding/influencing opportunities.  Regardless of the format used, people cost money.  As such, to the extent that brand ambassadors conduct their influencing while on the clock, the organization incurs a cost.

      3. Content:  Content is King!  According to the HR Management Guide blog (“SocialMedia Costs”), “The social media are about the interaction.  The dedicated employee has to find appealing information and has to publish information on a regular basis.”  The content used by brand ambassadors to engage with customers and potential customers must be created either internally or externally.  The nature, complexity and source of the content will determine the expense.

    4. Social Media Platforms:  As previously noted, most social media platforms are free to use.  However, there may be costs associated with their use such as the development of platform specific pages/screens (e.g., Facebook landing pages) that require resources to create.  Organizations must be aware of such costs as part of the planning stage of a social media strategy.

      5. Support Media:  The social media strategy will determine the extent to which support media will be necessary.  For example, organizations may create mailings, newspaper advertisements and other activities to drive traffic to the social media platform.

   6. Marketing:  Activities needed to convert social media prospects to buyers.  This includes the marketing campaigns that run on the social media platforms such as custom “apps.”

    7. Agencies:  Certain organizations may choose to outsource some or all of the social media activities.  These costs must be taken into consideration as part of the overall social media strategy.  Agencies costs may include consulting fees, social media outsourcing costs, and other associated expenses.

     8. Technology:  To the extent that technology support is needed to launch and maintain a social media-based brand ambassador program, these costs must be taken into consideration.  Such costs may include providing employees with social media enabled smart phones, upgrade of computers, and any other technology that may be needed.

     9. Analytics:  Every organization with a social media program should have in place a program to analyze the overall effectiveness of the organization’s social media strategy, including brand ambassadors.  The analytics provide the organization with the social media program’s return on investment.

   10. Complexity:  Organizations can spend very little on their social media efforts.  Likewise, organizations with large budgets can spend millions of dollars creating elaborate and complex social media strategies.  With social media there is something for every budget.  This amount must be taken into consideration as part of the planning process.

Code of Conduct:  Brand ambassador success requires that employees commit to the organization’s code of conduct (e.g., respectful tone, free of profanity, etc.) whenever they interact on a social media platform.  Brand ambassadors must understand that their personal social media activity may be interpreted as organization-sanctioned activity.  Therefore, whether on or off the clock, employees must be aware of the effect that their interactions on social media platforms may have on the organization.

A major challenge in developing a strong Brand Ambassador Program is that employees continue to become less loyal.  Back in 2004 Ronald J.Alsop had the following to say about the state of employee relations: “Employees are more cynical and less trusting because of all the recent cases of accounting abuse and executive greed.  What’s more, job insecurity, poor morale, and excessive workloads have eroded employees’ commitment to companies.”  In the post-Occupy Wall Street era it is very likely that these same issues continue to concern workers in 2012.

Blogger Linda Tucci describes in the TotalCIO blog at TechTarget.com (“SocialMedia Risks That Will Make Your Hair Stand on End”) an instance involving an executive at a public relations firm.  The seasoned public relations executive was flying to meet with a major client.  Upon arriving at the client’s hometown, the public relations executive tweeted that the client’s hometown was one of those places where he would rather die than have to live in.  An employee of the client’s firm read the tweet and passed it on to senior officials at the client and the public relations firm.  To say that the public relations executive had some explaining to do is an understatement.  The embarrassment caused to the public relations firm by its executive was further exacerbated by the fact that the public relations executive was meeting with the client to pitch, of all things, social media communications! 

The public relations executive story noted above is an example of a major concern with social media-enabled brand ambassadors.  For this reason it is crucial that organizations provide necessary guidance and training to brand ambassadors.  Ignoring this call to action may result in similarly embarrassing situations that may damage reputation and the bottom line.

Customer Service:  Rajib Kumar, blogger on Techncom.com, states that “When a consumer posts an issue online, he expects instant response which should be done promptly.  If the response drags, then it has a negative effect on the brand.  Don’t give the consumer time to start bad-mouthing.”

While a 24X7 response is not required for all social media programs, customers now expect to reach organizations via their social media platform of choice.  Further, customers expect prompt responses during business hours.  Their inability to resolve issues in that manner will go a long way in pushing them to organizations that do provide the expected service.

To the extent that the organization provides customer service through a call center, it is in the organizations best interest to equip the service center with the training and tools needed to provide the expected level of service.

Inconsistent Messaging:  Rajib Kumar emphasizes the importance of providing consistent messaging by stating that “If a query has been posted on different social platform, the response should be the same and consistent throughout so as not to confuse the customers.”  As such, “The staff managing the social media platforms needs to be organized and have a common vision and goal so that they do not speak in different voices on different platforms.”

Scale:  The HR Management Guide blog suggests that organizations should seek as large of a social media presence as possible to maximize use and investment in social media.  “The social media need a strong and constant presence.  The small presence means no influence, and it does not bring any benefits.  The organization has to build a strong and focused presence to be successful.”

Before developing a program to unleash the organization’s employees as brand ambassadors, the organization must ensure that it truly understands the costs and risks involved and is committed to the undertaking.  Without such a commitment the organization will ultimately fail in its attempt to leverage the advantages of social media.


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