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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Social Media Series: Susan Abbott on Bridging New & Old

This week's guest for Flooring The Consumer's Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old is Susan Abbott.

Susan Abbott focuses on "branded customer experiences and how to create them" in her blog Customer Experience Crossroads. There she offers insightful and delightfully fresh perspectives on the world of customer experiences. The range will surprise you. They do me. They will also have you thinking and rethinking experiences and perceptions generated.

As the founder of Toronto, Canada based Abbott Research & Consulting, Susan applies qualitative research to develop business-specific, customer-relevant actionable solutions for memorable customer experiences. She adds to both business and blog an innovative mindset. You can get a taste for that in her book The Innovative Organization which is a "practical exploration of sparking innovation in the real world ... based on the experiences and observations of the business managers and executives who participated in the two-year research project" as well as other articles and resources she has created.

Susan brings to this series a large organizational perspective -- from having worked in the financial services industry -- as well as that of the smaller, entrepreneurial business.

C.B.: Susan, How did you get involved with social media?

I was interested in the possibilities for connection with customers even using the basic web, way back in the last century, when I worked at a major financial institution. Some of the simple marketing goals I had then – giving our target market easy access to relevant information, visibility, brand building – haven’t changed that much.

After becoming a consultant, I proposed a blog to a client as a way for a large project team to keep in touch, share success stories, and so on. The client said no, so we were stuck with an intranet, and the inevitable happened: thousands of e-mails and keep-in-touch meetings.

I started my own blog after having coffee with Grant McCracken when we were the outside creatives on an innovation project. I asked him about his blog and he was so encouraging on the topic I took the plunge in December 2004.

Two things really drive my involvement with social media now.

First is keeping my professional profile high, so that people looking for someone with my skills are more likely to find me, and to find me credible. Things like LinkedIn are a natural for me, as it is basically an open directory listing. I also list in various trade directories. (The side benefit of blogging is that you meet amazing people and your writing really improves.)

The second is about monitoring trends so I can offer my clients some meaningful guidance on where things are going and what they need to do about it. My clients are mainly inside major corporations and their work lives are so stuffed with meetings and internal networking that they have to outsource environment scanning. Quite a few are in situations where the firewall blocks blogs and Facebook, so they are actually prevented from staying in touch with their customers/consumers. That may sound amazing, but it’s true.

In my customer insight work, I also use qualitative research platforms that are built on very similar technology as social media – things like interactive bulletin boards, private blog journals and web meetings.

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?

Susan: The tools are easy to use. If I was starting my business today, I’m not sure I would bother with a conventional web site, as people mainly find my blog first (www.customercrossroads.com). And it costs almost nothing to run.

I love it when really clever interesting people connect with me online. And some of these folks really do become true connections; they’re not just Facebook friends.

For businesses, social media tools allow for a dialogue and for insight into the mind of the market that is simply unparalleled short of hosting cake and cookies events all the time all over the world.

From a pure learning and knowledge sharing standpoint, social media have led to sharing on an unprecedented scale. One of my favourite places is Instructables.

And new models are emerging, like Innocentive, and peer-to-peer lending that I find intriguing. I’m enchanted by the possibilities of consumer-generated or customized products, like customizable Keds.

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?

Susan: I really dislike evangelists who claim to have all the answers. And there’s a lot of verbal bludgeoning going on. Marketers in big companies aren’t dummies and they are responsible for caring for important brand values. Few organizations tolerate failures in the name of innovation (even though they should), and professional credibility is always at stake. You can’t blame them for moving with some caution.

I also think the quality of commentary on many public forums is unbelievably poor. And that can be dismaying.

Human motivations and needs are not changing. What changes is how we meet those needs and social media is just giving us new ways to connect. Some people want to find a life partner. Some want to share their creations with others. Our tools give us new and better ways of doing things we already want to do.

From a personal perspective, there are times I find the pipeline of contact and content quite overwhelming. It’s simply impossible to connect with everyone who wants to talk. And it’s difficult to keep a large network fresh.

C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

Susan:
[1] Repurpose existing content or give it fresh life. For example, you have a checklist for carpet buying on Carpetology. There’s a ton of this kind of material inside places like banks or on their corporate web site. If they put it on a blog, bit by bit, along with knowledgable but friendly commentary this material would become more accessible and more interactive. People could even ask questions!

[2] Leverage the media-savvy people inside your company. In my world, at least one bank economist gives an interview just about every day. These are senior people, well schooled in the ways of talking for publication, and the best ones are interesting, smart and full of personality. They are typically good writers, too. I’m baffled that so few have a blog. Instead, much of their content shows up as a PDF on an 8½ x 11 page. It’s not designed for on-screen reading and there’s no potential for interaction. It’s such a waste of good content.

It would be great to go to YouTube and have a genuine expert explain things, supported by good graphics. I think of this as educational branding. It doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be an ad. It should be good information, clearly and simply presented.

My hairdresser has instructional videos on YouTube and my trainer told me she’s working on one, too. I think ad agencies have a huge role to play here, but they have to find ways to get compensated without broadcast media budgets.

[3] Run promotions that bring online and offline together. I read about a campus promotion where pictures were taken of students and their friends during the first week back at school The company had some kind of a big funny couch. Students could pick up the images online, send them to friends, and so on. Brilliant, fun, simple, engaging.

[4] Rethink your sponsorships. I conducted a study on sponsorship best practices recently and at the end of it concluded that it is one of the most effective kinds of marketing you can do. A good sponsorship now provides many ways of interacting, some of them online. This is a great place for any organization to start into social media.

[5] Run a social media bootcamp for your leaders. I am surprised by how many executives in some industries have no personal experience with the things consumers are involved with. We are not our customers! More than ever, marketers and executives need to work hard to stay immersed in the world of their customer or consumer.

C.B., it was a pleasure to give some sustained thought to your excellent questions. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

Thank you, Susan!

Comments? Questions? What do you think of Susan's suggestions for small and large organizations? Have you tried any? Do you have examples of others that proved successful?

Previous posts in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old include:
+ Laurence Borel
+ Lewis Green
+ Amber Naslund
+ Toby Bloomberg
+ Steve Woodruff
+ Ann Handley
+ Mack Collier
+ Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old

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