I had a fun (for me, at least) Twitter debate this Monday with CRM consultant Brian Vellmure. Brian made the mistake of touting one of my least-favorite books of all time – The Cluetrain Manifesto – as a ‘must read’, to which I objected.
Because while the fundamental premise of Cluetrain – that increasingly-networked customers will communicate with each other – is a no-brainer; the conclusion and prescription – that ‘everything has changed’ and that companies need to invest heavily in ‘dialogue’ (or ‘community’ or ‘Social Media’) to ‘engage’ in those dialogues, is simply not correct – and leads companies down the path of investing and focusing on the wrong things.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with building a community – nor is there anything wrong with serving healthy food in your cafeteria or having a fichus tree in your lobby.
But your Social Media strategy is not a competitive advantage – and it’s not a competitive disadvantage if you don’t do it.
I cited Apple as an example. Apple is about as ‘open’ as East Germany, Steve Jobs doesn’t blog, and the company is notorious for command-and-control management. Yet for some strange reason, customers keep lining up to buy their products.
Why? Great marketing (albeit not ’social’ marketing – just the opposite) – and great products.
Brian in turn suggested that Apple’s model is ‘not sustainable’. I disagree.
Interested in what others think. Am I wrong? Is my skepticism misplaced?
And Brian – thanks for engaging. I like you – but I still don’t like the book.
It’s an interesting perspective, but I think I’d have to disagree.
Take a look at Apple – how long have they been at “great marketing”? Decades, right? There’s probably some brand recognition there? People love their solid products, right?
There’s a natural social evangelism that takes place there by folks who *are* very social and conversational and generally all around Cluetrain-y.
I think Apple is pretty much a huge aberration in that respect. Can you come up with another example of a company that runs marketing like Apple that’s got a sustainable strategy like them?
Apple may have had a market advantage in that they invented the pc. They turned out sophisticated products and hired evangelists to spread the word. I would think that Guy Kawasaki has a few thoughts on this matter. Would probably agree with your assertion that engagement doesn’t matter if you are Apple- Apple at that moment in time where there was no clear competitor, Apple with those people at the helm. For the rest of us – engage or become a footnote.
I used Apple because it’s an obvious example, but I don’t think they are an aberration.
For instance, look at the auto industry. August 2009 (right in the midst of ‘Cash for Clunkers’) Subaru up 52%, Hyundai up 47%, Honda up 14.2%, GM down 20.2%.
Yes Ford had a pretty good month (up 17%) and yes they have a high-profile social media program. But was that the reason? I am suspicious, but it’s fair to say GM’s certainly didn’t.
I am by no means denying that customers talk to each other – and social media gives us a new channel to do that communicating.
My point is it’s the products that matter – now even more – with these new channels open. If you have crappy products, all the blogging in the world won’t help – and it actually may hurt.
Congrats to Ford – I’m very gratified to see a US-based automaker doing well – especially in this economy without using government handouts. But at least in my humble opinion, that’s because they are building better cars – not doing better blogging.
but wait, there’s more – http://bit.ly/2cJwg
I think there’s two things you can refer to when you ask “Does X company have a social media strategy?”
1) An ethos of openness and accessibility, ala Zappos. I think this is the part you’re talking about and is probably a debatable point.
2) The hard, ROIable and undeniable benefits of having a socially savvy company (that is to say, touchpoints within the products they make which interact or create social environments). Even Apple isn’t immune from this. They don’t have direct to the president communicative features on the corporate side, but most of their products have big social components to them, which have undeniable benefits towards the bottom line.
I won’t argue with your characterization of Apple. However, on Cluetrain, I think you’re making a bit of an extrapolation from the message of the book to the buzz of sound bites.
In Cluetrain, we pointed out the, to us, obvious parallel between the “what goes around comes around” dynamic of local, face-to-face marketplace conversations and the disjoint but potentially informative speech about products we find on the net.
A premise of the book is that the net allows people to communicate about products despite intervening geography and time. It’s much easier for me to learn that the backlight problem I’m having with my notebook is endemic to many similar notebooks rather than a one-off. As a consumer, I’m smarter, better informed, and more able to reap opinions about vendors and methods for dealing with vendors than I was before the net.
Using “social media” isn’t Cluetrain’s prescription, as we didn’t prescribe. The book points out the potential for conflict between corporate messaging and honest speech, and not-so-politely suggests there might be an advantage to getting in front of the issues caused by that conflict.
Personally, I don’t think conflating “social media” and “conversation” does justice to conversation. As to whether and when a company uses social media, that’s a choice, one that should be made deliberately. Everyone now knows United breaks guitars. It’s up to United to dig themselves out of the mess. Honest conversation might help.
Apple fanboys (not a derogatory term) run Apple’s online community and manage their online reputation better than any marketing department. Most companies do not enjoy this luxury. We have to go to our customers, not wait for them to come to us. Facebook and the like is where they are at.
Social media is revolutionising the way corporates communicate. Is it revolutionising their ethics or the way they do business? I think that overstates the power of the internet
(halfway through readingThe ClueTrain and not convinced yet)
With the repeated failure of socialist/marxist politics, social revolutionaries now turn to the internet as the New Hope for social transformation. Sorry guys, it isn’t.
Full transparency isn’t ever going to occur as long as human’s are involved, no matter how altruistic we think we are. But as marketers we can’t confuse social media with popular outlets for its expression. Social media refers to a dramatic change in the relationship between suppliers and their marketplaces, and one in which consumers now have the upper hand. Social media is to business today what the telephone was to communications. It’s an acceleration of communication. We must be careful not to discount social media by associating it only with outlets for its expression like LinkedIn®, TripAdvisor® and MySpace®. For most of history the marketplace has been captive, communications largely one sided, and there have been few alternatives. The situation has changed. To survive, we need to embrace the concepts of social media. Social media gives consumers a unified voice and input to service delivery in real time, magnifying their marketplace power. Social media outlets like Facebook® or Twitter® allow service providers to converse with communities of customers and users, as opposed to talking at them. Essentially social media uses technology to convert static one-way communications into dynamic conversations about things consumers find important. Failure to listen to what your consumers think is important and take action (sometimes preemptively) is usually disastrous.
Bottom line – using social media to listen to (and respond when necessary) what your customers are saying provides a competitive advantage over your competitors who aren’t. It allows you the opportunity to out-maneuvre them.
When we’re talking about Ford, GM, Hyundai and all the other bigco’s named above, I think the effect on the bottom line and in the marketing efforts is negligable because these guys have age-old methods of guaging customer response.
I think the big difference is, in the case of the big automakers, the cost involved. Social media is a lot more cost efficient at guaging the customer response than traditional methods like focus groups and survey sampling (and arguably more accurate as well).
At September 20, 2009, Bill Free wrote:
Interesting discussion, both in its substance and in the role of social media as a facilitator. The meme that “customers are now in charge” is overstated. Customers have always been in charge. They’ve always talked about their product experiences, shared their opinions, and influenced purchasing decisions. Wants have always driven demand. In this respect, social media is simply an amplifier.
What is changing is the role business is playing in the conversation, both as listener and as engaged participant. Ideology aside, IT Skeptic downplays an important part of this dynamic. Businesses large and small are looking beyond product to differentiate their brands and manage reputation risk. “New Hope for social transformation” overplays the point by looking at stakeholder engagement through the wrong end of the telescope. For the most part, companies that embrace social causes or promote community kumbaya do so not because they seek to impose values on their publics, but because they want their brands to resonate with them.
For me, the strategic decision is whether a company seeks to become a “social business” by embedding an engagement ethos in its corporate culture. No, customers don’t care about your social media strategy. But engaging them on things they do care about can help distinguish your brand and drive purchase just like the new feature you tacked on your product. And it’s a tangible investment producing tangible ROI.
I agree, social media is not a competitive advantage. It’s merely a marketing tactic, a tool. Great brands are social beyond the Web 2.0 space. They create tribes. You sited Apple, and they’re a great example. Design is their strategic advantage. Following is an excerpt from one of my recent blog posts where I discuss design as THE competitive advantage and specifically Apple’s approach to design. The full post can be viewed at: http://www.nocturnaldesign.com/cm/content.asp?pid=37&lid=38
Here is the excerpt…
Apple is more design savvy than perhaps any brand has ever been. Design is their starting point and always built in, never added on. Seamlessly integrating functionality and usability with elegant minimalism is their iconic style. At its core (sorry), Apple is a very “human” technology company. No detail is overlooked in their commitment to design the best possible user experience. Their products are portals to that experience.
Apple’s design-driven experience connects with consumers in seemingly spiritual ways. The faithful proselytize the brand with religious zeal. Devotees wait in line for days to be the first to get their hands on the latest iGizmo. Disciples wax dogmatically over Steve Jobs’ messianic MacWorld sermons, err… keynotes. Apple understands the pivotal role these brand evangelists play in perpetuating the experience and nurtures their devotion to strategic advantage.
When Apple initially prohibited third-party programs from running on the iPhone, hackers refused to be hamstrung. Rather than fight a losing battle the company opted to offer user-created applications for free and for purchase through their innovative online App Store. Forced acquiescence revolutionized the experience. Suddenly, consumers were no longer simply participating they now had a deeply emotional stake in actively designing the experience – and not just for themselves, but for others as well. The portal got a lot wider.
Apple launched the App Store in June of 2008. As of July 2009, 65,000 different programs were available and 1.5 billion (yes, billion) had been downloaded. Apple allows 70% of revenues from the store to go to the seller of the app, and maintains 30% for itself. Investment firm Piper Jaffray has predicted that the App Store could generate revenue exceeding $1 billion annually for the company.
Nourishing design as a strategic asset to consistently deliver better technology experiences has cemented Apple’s value in the minds of consumers. No brand is perfect though and Apple has had some missteps. Remember the Newton? Still, resoundingly, Apple gets it.
It isn’t to say that Apple couldn’t benefit from a healthy Social Media presence. Sure, they don’t “need” it, but who’s to say they couldn’t leverage their community to capture another 2-3% of the market, for example? Or drive more iTunes transactions?
One more thought: Companies’ success cycles are such that even Apple could benefit from being involved in its community when its star fades again, which it will. Investing in those relationships now, when things are good, could minimize Apple’s brand erosion next time it hits a snag.
Great discussion. 😉
My takeaway from Cluetrain was that in the end, it was about the “conversation”, the “TALK”. You start with the mom&Pop shop in your neighbourhood, where character and quality meet in daily exchange. You expand that to the internet where early bboards and forums and email expanded that “linkage” to create virtual “neighbourhoods”. As time progressed we encounter what is known as SM, an extensible more portable variety of our “neighbourhood” again. With a wider reach it becomes quickly unsustainable, and starts to look inwards toward geo-location facilities to tie people closer to real people and real sustainably reachable products. Local begins to become a primary force in the “net”.
A bit more time passes, and you realize that conversations are the pivotal point of the “social” in “social media”, not the tech.
And you end up back a Mom & Pops corner store,
Amazing isn’t it?
It’s interesting for me to note that the issues of authenticity, transparency, direct coversation, and “involvement” are really non issues for small biz using social media. For us, it’s just extension, not a “game changer”, we just continue to do what we’ve always done, only now, much more economically. Costs of ads, newspaper runs, flyers can be avoided by utilizing localized SM to it’s fullest.
The marketplace is thriving, and it’s becoming more localized daily.
As a company gets larger, those issues, such as “transparency” and “authenticity” become larger and harder to deal with. Social media brings people back together into a “local” community. Oftimes that “local” is physical, other times not.
For small biz, social media is a HUGE competitive advantage. It makes their voice very large and resonates well. And they don’t even have to work very hard at it, it just comes naturally. All they have to do is start to learn to use it more.
Great discussion here, thanks Oliver for pointing it out to me (us) on twitter. I haven’t read “Cluetrain Manifesto” (it’s on my reading list). Regardless, I would like to point out that Apple built their brand by delivering distinction at every touchpoint with the customer, and they did this long before social media entered the picture.
Social media is now a very valid touchpoint. Apple is so good at delivering “brand promise” at every touchpoint that it would likely be able to ignore social media if it chooses and not hurt its brand. This by no way means that Apple couldn’t benefit from engaging in social media, in fact I think they are positioned perfectly to use social media to strengthen brand even more.
Social media is often thought of as a way to dialog with customers but in Apples case (same for other large corps) it could be used effectively as a way to strengthen the ecosystem and dialog with programmers, app developers, vendors, etc.
Thanks again for the thought provoking post
Love the point that Olivier brought up here in the comments. Just because things are going well now, doesn’t mean that Apple will always be soaring along. Establishing a closer connection with the customers that love you now, will keep them coming back when things aren’t going quite as smoothly.
So can Apple benefit from using social media now? Well they may not see immediate benefits, but in terms of long term, it could prove to be invaluable.
At September 21, 2009, Douwe wrote:
Don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Berlin wall is gone for quite a while now! Apple is getting a much harder time recently I believe, because getting more customers but remaining a very closed organization is starting to annoy more and more people. For one thing, people are waking up to the fact that Apple is very much about making money and lots of it. ‘Think different’ simply does not apply any more. Apple has misbehaven in many ways recently, all of the App-store scandals being most notable. Apple does what it wants and is used to that. They must some day wake up to the fact that they too, like everything in the universe, are part of an ecosystem.
Also, Steve will not live forever. After the emperor is gone, the dialogue will have to start.
Well, first have a look at when the Cluetrain Manifesto was written – 1999. things were hardly self evident back then. It had amazing foresight if it seems a bit dated now.
One could argue that Apple has been doing at least some of the tenants of social media well.
One, focus on your product, because if you have good product you’ll get word of mouth marketing going.
Two – good customer service.
Completely agree with your views Chris. While Apple might not have an active social media strategy it’s marketing strategy provides sufficient fodder for social media conversations. This I believe is the single most important priority of brands. My post on the same “Marketing priority for social media success” http://bit.ly/llzXc might be of interest.
Chris, let’s talk!
That Apple is successful with their command and control model is not a proof social doesn’t work. In fact, Apple has the benefit of accidental social. Their command and control works because in the end of the day they do make their customers happy, and those customers spend a lot of time being very social about that. Most brands envy the social leverage Apple enjoys.
Steve Jobs is a master of harnessing the viral aspects of Social to his benefit. He has a Social Media strategy that works, it just doesn’t operate the way the Cluetrain Manifesto world suggests. That’s different than not having a strategy and very different from saying no matter what your strategy is, there is no competitive advantage!
Let’s look at your flip side argument: not having a Social Media strategy is not a competitive disadvantage. Imagine the picture you paint of Apple as pure command and control (it isn’t, but let’s take a fully Soviet-era perspective). Let’s eliminate the “accidental community” aspect. This is a brand that has a lot of people talking about it negatively and is making no effort to respond. Let’s further assume that company has a competitor that has a successful social media strategy.
The one company does what it wants regardless of what people think. The other is actively listening, responding, and engaging.
No advantage? Really?
Social strategies span a continuum like anything else. They don’t have to be the Berkeley populist perspective that Cluetrain espouses. But to ignore a medium that communicates so well to so many is a mistake. If nothing else, there’s plenty of data that indicates vendor credibility is just about zip. You need someone else to deliver your message.
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about Apple – I wasn’t trying to make a negative proof. You’re right that Apple enjoys a ton of social leverage.
We can argue the point whether Apple’s strategy is an ‘un’strategy or non-existent. My point, however, is that ultimately their success is driven by customer satisfaction and enthusiasm for their PRODUCTS.
Having said that, as a loyal Apple customer I can attest to their customer service being excellent – which is additive.
Last but not least, if ‘listening, responding and engaging’ is critical, then which organization should really own the Social Media strategy? Marketing? Or Customer Care?
I might argue the latter – and not refer to it as a ‘Media’ strategy at all – it’s at least as much a ‘Care’ strategy.
Again, appreciate your comments – this discussion definitely to-be-continued.
Chris, you cut through to the heart of the problem for most companies: do they really care about customers? What experience are they unconsciously passing on based on their cultures?
If nothing else, Apple has a great culture of caring. They may be overly parental about it at times (hey, we love our kids, but we are in control!), but it comes through srongly. I love their Genius Bar concept, for example.
If the caring is real, it may not matter so much which organization owns it. If not, better pick an organization to work on improving first and start with the one closest to the problem. Be sure to give them some tools to show the customer they care too, and don’t just tell them to care.
In the end, both marketing and customer service need a seat at the Social Media table. The relationship is not unlike the Marketing/Sales relationship in many ways. Marketing arms Sales with messaging, but Sales does most of the engaging.