Be a Good Company, Or Else – Intersections of Social Media, Public Opinion, and Market Success

In recent times, we have been witnessing social media become a force of change.

Dictators have been toppled; at least one autocratic government (even as it strongly censors messages) keeps reacting to the public sentiment expressed via social networking services; Americans are wondering what’s really up with the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they are pointing discussions in a different direction, at least.

Having seen the impact that social media have on purchasing decisions in China, knowing of the same from ‘the West’, working on my own little campaign for better living – “for yourself and, incidentally, for ‘the planet,’ too” – with the ecology of happiness, I wonder what we may yet see happen in regards to ‘the economy.’

Companies have been getting into social media in great numbers, looking to be where the action is – but I think they still tend to misunderstand how social media dynamics are different from traditional marketing.

The counter-example first: Some corporations may be too ‘everyday’ to be threatened much.

A Kraft Foods or Nestlé, Shell or BP has too many different brands and/or is behind too much of everyday life for too many people to be affected as quickly and strongly as would have to happen to make a real dent in their performance. That said, it does not take many people to protest in front of stores to make other shoppers uncomfortable. Share prices are heavily influenced by psychology, too, and thus amenable to drop if public opinion is seen to be unhappy with a company. And that’s not economic performance, in this case, but behavior in the real world…

Also, to keep up their brand’s values, even such large and diversified companies need to care about their public face, their behavior, the opinion people have of them.

With more specialized companies, the issue only gets more important. Even Apple had to react to public sentiment when customers’ unhappiness about the price drop between the two early generations of iPhones got too strong – and that is one company which has strong support in spite of many problems (their locked-in ecosystem – which has both advantages and disadvantages; suicides and bad working conditions at supplier’s factories; products with obvious planned obsolescence; the question of how long the cachet as a symbol of creativity and being different can survive when the company has become an established ‘big brother’-like part of the establishment itself…).

A main reason (potential) customers connect with brands is still very traditional: to profit from special offers.

The desire to tell of personal experiences and help others through such reviews is another major driver, however. Behind it may be a sense of a connection that (at least some) people want to create. – And it is these people that are going to tell others, and it is here that it makes a great difference whether the communications of a company make it feel like it is listening, approachable, appreciative – or not.

This alone is related to a possible change in the relationship between customers and companies: Even when we are just consumers buying something, we don’t want to be treated as nothing more than a customer whose only role is to hand over the money. People increasingly expect for a company to show a human face and an understanding of human communication – which is not just one-way.

This alone presents great opportunities and great challenges.

Traditional marketing wants to tell people how great a product is – but did not have to contend nearly as much with the other voices that social media make possible.

The same word-of-mouth and (thus) the same experiences of other people we know – or even just heard commenting about a product – that mattered even before has now been amplified tremendously. Many people don’t just go into a store and buy, they have a look at the reviews, compare prices, and ask their friends online for their opinions.

They may also have a notion of certain companies based on what they happened to hear in social media. That could be hearing about a company that is small but considered excellent (and may have been overlooked if it were not for someone’s recommendation), hearing an opinion about particular products, or getting the impression that it’s particularly good or not good, in terms of social proof, to take your business to a particular company.

We are not quite there yet, but may be getting ever closer to the time when the most surefire way to alienate people could be standard marketing. Having a commercial tell you how great a product and a company is, while the social networks (including many people you may consider friends) are abuzz with comments to the contrary, will probably become one of the easiest ways of shooting yourself in the knee.

Being good, as part of a conversation that includes both ‘speaking’ and listening, and as a good corporate citizen that provides value to the customers even after they have forked over their money, and is good even to stakeholders – as in, the world – not directly responsible for profits, may increasingly make a difference.

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