How Social Media Can Influence High-Stakes Business Decisions

Social media is more than just amassing likes. Companies are using advanced social techniques to rehabilitate corporate reputations, uncover ideas for breakthrough products, and figure out what competitors are up to.

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Pushing the Right Levers

The $84 billion Wells Fargo, which last year was the most profitable bank in the U.S., used to let business units and divisions conduct their own social media activity separately. As a result, a number of different strategies and initiatives ran on a hodgepodge of tools, says Rene Brown, director of social media. The bank then decided to create an enterprisewide social media strategy, to present a more coherent and controlled voice online.

Last year, Wells Fargo opened a social media command center in San Francisco, with a secondary center in Charlotte, N.C. Two more Wells Fargo employees in the Philippines monitor the action after the West Coast shuts down for the night. In the San Francisco office, marketing and customer service staff sit in front of eight monitors, assigned to follow different channels. Legal, compliance and special "social care bankers" are on call in case any complicated customer situations or crises arise.

Every morning, the team walks through its planned posts to assess them against events in world news and the financial services industry, as well as news specific to Wells Fargo, Brown says, to avoid "the wrong voice if there's a tragedy somewhere."

From the command center, the bank executes proactive strategies, such as Twitter and Facebook posts during the FIFA World Cup this summer. Wells Fargo sponsors the Mexican National Team, in part to reach Hispanic customers and potential customers. The bank responded in real time during popular matches, posting pictures of players and cheering for teams. The work garnered 8 million responses, such as retweets, in the course of three major games, Brown says.

Just as important as real-time marketing is having the right timing and tone when responding to controversy. In March, Wells Fargo faced a surprise online assault regarding a branch in New Mexico. An American flag had been thumbtacked to a wall there for several months. When a property manager mentioned to the bank manager that the flag could be displayed more appropriately, it was removed. A few days later, the flag was hung on a pole near the entrance. In the interim, a local TV station aired a story in which a customer alleged that other customers had pressured the bank to take down the flag, implying that Wells Fargo had bowed to anti-American sentiment.

Conservative websites and blogs soon joined the fray, some saying Wells Fargo had banned the U.S. flag and others calling for customers to drop their accounts. Many simply copied and pasted errant stories from other sites, generating comments from followers outraged at the bank.

"A symbol like the American flag takes off in a news cycle," Brown says. "It was such an inaccurate story that it made it tough for us not to sound defensive." But the bank had to address the controversy. In a Facebook post, Wells Fargo said, in part, "We have standards of how to display the flag with the appropriate respect. In this case, we made a simple change to adhere more closely to those standards."

Even events outside the bank's control put its social media team on alert. After the Target data breach, for example, Wells Fargo customers on social media were concerned about passwords and whether their debit cards were linked to their Target accounts. Wells Fargo decided not to issue statements because the worries weren't widespread. Always, the team has to consider when to respond to social media activity and when not to, Brown says. "We have to be both transparent and accurate and not oversharing or undersharing."

A flurry of social media posts on a specific topic--say, 100 posts in 60 minutes--will trigger a statement from the bank. For example, a denial-of-service attack against Wells Fargo's website last year warranted a response from the bank. Posts provided information to customers while simultaneously reassuring them. Corporate communications, IT, the digital channels groups and other departments work together to craft plans like that, Brown says. "In our industry, we can't do anything without a lot of eyes reviewing," she says.

The Ultimate Metric

The business benefit of next-generation social media work goes well beyond the number of interactions a tweet can trigger. Wells Fargo, for example, is testing whether it can spur social media users to go through a loan-application process at its website, experimenting with different posts and tracking the responses to see what works best.

And yes, these companies do measure interaction. But they're also able to measure new business. Domino's CEO Doyle easily rattles off stats about his company's followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But, he says, "First, ultimately, it's about sales." Calvert, Virgin America's CMO, agrees. Virgin counted up the over 17,000 views of its Branson video and was happy to get more than double the number of petitioners it expected. "But the biggest metric," Calvert says, "was getting the two gates."

Use Your Influencers

Don't just collect social media followers. Put those fans to work for you.

Followers of your corporate Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media outlets can be more than just loyal customers. They can be product testers, idea generators, and members of a ready-made focus group. Also: marketing and IT can work together to collect the social media handles of customers, then log on, tune in and observe what they do online to create a more complete picture of who you're selling to, says Dave Hanley, principal at Deloitte Consulting.

Ask for social media data during customer support calls or hold contests that require customers to submit it, Hanley suggests. Then integrate social media data with customer information in CRM and call-center systems.

By observing conversations online, companies can determine what issues, events and people move customers to act in some way--by replying, for example, or buying a product, Hanley says. Identifying customers by "persona," he says, yields "a more three-dimensional view than transaction data alone."

Another tactic for getting more value from social media followers is to let them know about new product or service ideas early, so that when the new offering comes out, they are already familiar with it and more receptive, says Estelle Metayer, founder and president of Competia, a strategic consultancy.

Virgin America did something like that when changing its e-commerce site this year, monitoring social media feedback about new features and adjusting along the way. In May, the airline rolled out a beta version of the site, revealing it to different audiences in phases. First, its own employees and some Google staffers got a peek, to assess the performance of new features. Then 30 or 40 frequent flyers who act as informal advisers were let in on it. Finally, the media and social-media influencers were notified.

"It was fascinating to watch the reaction on Twitter as the community noticed it and it started to go viral," says Dean Cookson, Virgin America's CIO.

After early testers said they'd like to be able to see fare options when their dates are flexible, Cookson's team added that feature to the site before the formal launch in June. By collaborating with the marketing group, Cookson says, the IT team sees how their work affects the company fortunes. "We want interesting problems to solve, not just tasks to do."

This story, "How Social Media Can Influence High-Stakes Business Decisions" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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