If you want to know what people are saying about you, you must listen.
Parts of Virgin Media are already doing this, and the company plans to do more of the same.
The backstory: given that I’d been trying for two months to get broadband since my house move, I recently posted a non-too-complimentary missive about both Virgin Media and BT.
Virgin Media had been my ISP for three years and yet they seemed incapable of connecting me. Eventually they told me there was a ‘tag’ on the line – whatever that is – and that, if someone had checked this from the outset, I could have had a lot less bother. It turned out that the problem was really with BT.
So I left Virgin Media (from now on VM for the sake of my fingers), and decided to pursue BT. This was the second circle of hell, and six weeks later, I’m finally online.
… the good…
At the time of posting I decided not to turn it into just another whinge. I thought it would be interesting to pack it with keywords and links that should have made it as easy as possible for these suppliers to find me, especially given that this post would end up on my Twitter feed and Friendfeed, erm, feed.
Sally Whittle picked up on this, so it seemed fair to expect others to. I thought it would be an interesting social media experiment. I thought, “Let’s see whether those companies are actually on the lookout for posts about themselves. Potential consumers will be out there looking for reviews of ISP performance, so I wonder whether ISPs themselves are looking out for, well, reviews of their own performance.”
And VM found me – three times*. I was approached by Alex Brown and Paula Wills with an offer of help, and they put me in touch with Asam Ahmad, who is involved with VM’s online PR (note: I haven’t included Twitter links here for the reasons you’ll see below)
… and the coffee
So, Friday before last, I met up with Asam to talk about social media monitoring.
As with the Friendly Chat interviews I conducted last year, this took the form of a fairly open-ended conversation – no ‘ambush’ interviews, no recordings, just me furiously scribbling on a notepad in longhand while trying to concentrate on what was said and avoiding spilling my coffee. And this is what we talked about…
Turns out that, later that day in fact, VM was to receive the results of a major report on potential areas of social media activity. Conducted by an external agency, this looked at all aspects of social media, across all platforms, including VM’s competition. 360 degree reviews are commonplace in PR, and this sounded pretty comprehensive to me.
Obviously Asam couldn’t share the findings with me – he didn’t know them himself! – but he was able to tell me how this came about.
It seems that VM already has ‘activists’ who are already clued up, and already on Twitter, with alerts set up across various platforms to pop up when a mention of its name comes up. This is probably how Alex and Paula found me in the first place – and kind of what I was hoping would happen when I posted. Moreover, they had the foresight to put me in touch with Asam.
Activists is a good name. Companies need activists to forge change – and how things are changing.
These VM activists are already improving their internal comms. Asam has already found that, within a company of thousands of employees, he’s finding it really useful simply to follow colleagues and get an idea of what they’re up to. Informality is key. You can have any number of ‘awareness days’ or ‘focus groups’ but a company’s ability to create horizontal, small-world networks across its organisation could yield immensely powerful forces for positive change.
This very much reflects the findings of the recent AT&T Enterprise 2.0 study (disclosure: I worked on the report while at Fleishman-Hillard) which also found that employees felt they were benefitting from internal networks.
This is important. The next generation of employees will already be using these networks and will expect to be able to use them in their work – as, equally importantly, will their clients. In my first ‘real’ job I was surprised to have access to email: now, I expect it to be there (who doesn’t?), and it’s a tool I use every day. Facebook, Twitter et al will be equally as important, and more powerful, in the future.
From Virgin Media to social media
So VM already has a loosely affiliated group of activists. It’s now figuring out how it can use social media strategically. This involves asking critical questions such as:
- Where does social media sit? This is crucial. There is a very real risk that, as VM people continue to use social media, they may inadvertently become an ad-hoc frontline for customer support. While this is an area VM are keen to explore, Asam quoted a wonderful example of the MD of NTL:Telewest business using a twitter contact to pass a sales query on to the appropriate internal contact. While it’s great that the MD was able to do that, we’re talking seriously re-wired flows of communication here and obviously this is not a sustainable position.
- This leads to the next question: how is it resourced? At the moment, Virgin Media’s social media presence is growing organically – their activists are looking at the best ways to use the tools at hand and much of it is done in their spare time. However, if they go out with a big bang, there is a risk that everyone will start to expect immediate service from something that’s in its early stages, and only managed by a handful of VM’s activists. This is why I haven’t listed any Twitter links here. I don’t want these people to become inundated. Yet. Clearly they will need to have internal lines of comms set up that enable the team to pass issues on for quick resolution, and that resource needs to be justified.
- And justification depends on measurement, in which case, how do you measure success? I see this as A Big Question for social media in the coming year. How do you quantify your social media efforts? As budgets become ever more tightly squeezed, those owning the purse-strings will quite rightly demand to know what the returns are, given the inputs and the risks.
This is actually an age-old PR question: how to place value on relationships. My take on this is that, in meeting Asam and exchanged a few tweets with Alex and Paula, I now think of VM as a group of people rather than a corporate brand. Furthermore, VM has secured a ‘good’ story alongside a bad one, a point very astutely recognised by Rob at It’s Open.
There are other benefits. Asam himself follows journalists and they, in turn, follow him. Not only does he find it useful to get to know them on a daily basis – as he does with his colleagues – but he has insight into what opportunities the journalists are looking for and, in best PR practice, match what he has to offer with what they want. Furthermore they get to see, through following him, how he interacts with customers. It’s open and it’s transparent, and whereas these are just catch-phrases for social media, they’re good.
This is signal, not noise. I interviewed Sally Whittle, a very social media-friendly journalist, last year, and she testified to the drowning of journalists in the ever-increasing noise of social media. It’s true that journalists tend to be hunting for news, given their brief. But what’s wrong with a bit of fishing too?
At the end of the day, the Virgin Media activists found me. What needs to happen is for more of the company to become ‘activated’ too, but in a structured, planned, strategic fashion. The critical questions are around which parts of the company become activated, and how they interact with the rest of it. Virgin Media, to their credit, are addressing this problem now.
And at the end of the day, they found me. BT did not.
* Postscript: To date, BT still haven’t found me. Or, if they have, they haven’t contacted me. I should add that I’m now with BT quite simply because I’m so well acquainted with their support systems and I have a couple of named contacts, so I figure that if anything goes wrong (again), I can schmergle my way through the system and get help. Still, everything seems to be working. I’m listening to some cool Cuban music streamed through Spotify courtesy of BT. Nice.