On Friday, I went to a "brown bag" lunch in which a marketing firm gave us a presentation about new media marketing, that is, social marketing. Or "social" as the lingo appears to be when referring to outreach via facebook, blogs, twitter, and so on.
Anyone who's been around more than ten or twenty years has probably witnessed the slow deterioration of this thing called "customer service" in favor of automation, outsourcing, deferring. Big companies seem to make it as hard as possible for an individual to communicate directly with someone, or at least someone knowledgable, when they have a problem. They shunt you through complex automated phone trees, web sites, and support systems, that place a huge burden on the end-user to solve the problem themselves.
Even though most consumers find this frustrating and mind-bogglingly difficult, there is some rationale for companies to do this. Even if it takes an average consumer 10 times as long to get through a support issue, and even if only 1 out of those 5 consumers can actually get their problem solved without speaking to a real person anyway, you've just saved 20% in labor costs. Because automated system cost virtually nothing to operate on a per-user basis, whereas people cost real dollars. You're shifting the cost of support to the end user.
But the advent of social networking, which has put a soapbax in the hands of everyman, and Google, which can turn a speck of dust on the Internet into a first-page search result when the right conditions are met, have changed all this. Companies can no longer afford to ignore their customers, because more and more, they will share their bad experiences. And this information gets attached to their name for a very long time online. Savvy companies are reacting by being more proactive, like PEPCO did to my blog post.
This is still just marketing. They are being driven by the bottom line - by doing a better job of managing their online "reputation" companies will sell more. The PR guy on Friday told us that stuides have shown that people who "like" something on Facebook are statistically more likely to buy that brand in the future. That's real money.
So money may still be at the bottom line, but this is America. There's nothing wrong with making money. It's nice to see a shift in the relationship between consumers and big business that is shifting the balance of power back to something more reasonable. Consumers have a voice online, and the evolving technology has made that voice one that can't be ignored. It's a win for consumers, and I think most companies will find that they benefit as organizatons by nurturing their customers this way, rather than doing their best to spend as little time as possible on them after the sale.