Based on early indicators, 2015 looks to be the year that “being social” turns into a real revenue-generating activity.
Brands selling complex products know the purchase path has changed in a big way. The massive amount of information available online means every prospect is armed with detailed product knowledge before they ever consider a purchase. In a recent survey 72% of buyers stated they used social media to research a solution before even contacting a vendor representative.
That means their buying journey is nearly complete before you even have a chance to share your marketing message and value proposition. The traditional touch points you’ve relied upon in the past to influence the sale – research, comparison, referrals and recommendations – now happen without your visibility or involvement.
A study conducted with Lithium customers revealed that an increasing number of early stage buying conversations – discussions that clearly indicate purchase consideration or intent – are occurring on social channels. Evaluating threads on both owned (branded community) and third party sites turned up nearly 1000 such conversations a month.
This tells us there is an opportunity to think about social engagement in a new way, stepping up from social marketing and social support into real social selling.
In this post I’ll outline three key steps to make the move:
Find your customers early in the sales cycle
Bring the right people
Bring the right content
Find your customers early in the sales cycle
Getting into the conversation early can influence and accelerate the path to purchase. When faced with a social ecosystem that is massive and noisy, how can you find and engage with an individual buyer? The key is to sort the valuable discussions, which show product relevance and purchase intent, from the rest.
Deploying intelligent listening allows you to filter the thousands of conversations occurring daily to capture the posts that represent real opportunities. With advanced language processing and tagging you can even pinpoint where a particular prospect is in their buying journey (have they just identified a need, specified a budget, or are they at the point of comparing specific vendors?).
This is an extremely powerful advance in social strategy because it allows you to much more efficiently leverage scarce resources and engage potential customers when and where it matters most. Rather than broadcasting a marketing message into a crowded space – where it is irrelevant to most of the receiving audience – this strategy allows you to deliver your message to prospects that have directly expressed a need and are seeking your help.
Bring your social game to lead generation by considering the following:
Where are people talking about your brand?
What are the social channels your customers and prospects rely on for help and advice?
Where do industry experts and thought leaders congregate to discuss your brand and competitors?
With those questions answered you’re ready to start listening and prepare to engage.
Bring the Right People
Identifying a “buying conversation” on the social web is a start, but you also need to decide how to engage. Of course you could just push your standard marketing materials at every opportunity – but that’s a sure way to lose credibility.
I hear again and again that prospects don’t want to be “sold to.” But that doesn’t mean the brand is blocked from participating. Every interaction from the brand need not be a pre-fabricated pitch. But as a social conversation, visible to the world, it does have to be authentic. Otherwise, it won’t connect. That means engaging in a conversation that demonstrates empathy (I understand you), provides real value (I can help you), and comes from an actual human (I’m not a robot!).
The imperative is to identify the resources – the people – that can best help answer questions and give real advice. The good news is these folks likely already exist in the organization and are active on social media today. The common trait I’ve seen is that they are passionate about their industry or product area and LOVE to talk about it.
Teeing up the best conversations at the right time gives your experts an opportunity to do what they love, while having a direct impact on lead generation.
Here are a few steps to get started in finding the right people:
Who is blogging, tweeting and engaging on your community?
Who has social currency (rank, reputation, Klout score, etc.) that demonstrates their credibility?
Recognize that they may live outside of sales or marketing – who are the “rockstar” experts in support, engineering, or product development?
Bring the Right Content
The value of engaging in online buying conversations is actually two-fold: first, you have a direct opportunity to influence an individual in an active purchasing decision. Second, the discussion left behind remains available for years to come, as valuable content that will continue to influence other prospects.
User generated content in communities has incredibly high SEO value – hosted communities typically generate over 80% of traffic directly from search engines. When the next prospect goes to Google to search for advice on the best product for their needs, these conversations will be high on the results.
What will they find when they click through? If you’ve got your best and brightest responding, then they should see a clear answer to their question occurring through an organic online discussion. Of course by itself, visibility is not always enough: you need to make the content actionable.
Actionable content provides an opportunity for the reader to interact, take a logical next step, and accelerate down the purchase path. The most obvious way to make your content actionable is through embedded links. When discussing particular products or solutions in conversation, links to your on-domain content provide a contextual signpost for prospects eager to learn more. Tip: Be sure to track these!
In one recent experience, such links – naturally embedded in community conversations – generated click-through rates (CTR) of 20-30%, 10x the rate of typical online marketing’s 2-3%!
The good news is that the destination content – the web pages, white papers, blog articles, etc. – almost certainly exist already on your domain. Digital marketers have gotten really good at producing high value content that drives further conversion (download a gated asset, sign up for a webinar, ask for a sales call, etc.). Smartly aligning your existing content marketing efforts with active social engagement amplifies the value of both.
Here are a few considerations when thinking about your actionable content:
Does it provide direction, telling the consumer how to take action, where they need to go or what to do next?
Is it motivating action by clearly articulating the benefits?
Is it measurable – are we instrumented to track the activities from conversation to content to conversion?
Putting it all together
We have resolved to make 2015 the year that social selling gets real. There’s no doubt that more companies – aka, your competitors – will get serious about putting social to work. That means demanding more real business value – measured through leads and revenue, not just likes and shares.
Doing social selling right requires a focused, programmatic strategy, which positions the right conversations in front of the right people, armed with the best content. It’s certainly not simple, but smart brands are recognizing the need – and the opportunity – to engage with their customers in new ways across the social web. With the steps outlined here, you can make 2015 the year social pays off.
Louis Peters is Director of Social Strategy Consulting at Lithium. He advises major brands on achieving tangible business results from their social initiatives, and helps implement long-term customer experience improvement programs. Louis has over fifteen years of experience in delivering and running enterprise software services at leading companies including Siebel and Oracle. You can follow him on Twitter @lpetersjr.
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As a member of our Social Strategy Consulting team, I have the unique opportunity to regularly engage with world-class brands around social media trends impacting their business. I recently spent time with one of our global support communities in the midst of a dramatic customer care transformation.
Through consolidations and organizational shifts they had already managed to do some pretty impressive cost cutting, with minimal impact on customer satisfaction. But the real work lay ahead – leveraging crowd-based support across their digital channels to further reduce the volume (and cost) of assisted care.
Combine this with the fact that customers generally don’t want to talk with support agents anyway. A majority (57% in a recent study) makes a web search their first option before thinking about picking up the phone. They prefer self-service support when it is easily available – and effective.
This reality should make the digital leap easier, at least in principle. If consumers don’t really want to talk to you, then diverting resources from the call center is a logical move. The hard part is how to intelligently align your support resources across channels to yield the maximum benefit to the business and the customer.
At Lithium, we have been hard at work partnering with our customers to build an effective call-to-crowd model. It starts with these steps:
understand the current state
identify issues ripe for deflection
set achievable targets
prepare to measure the outcome of transformation activities.
1. Understand the current state
Support centers are typically among the most data-driven functions in any company. Every interaction is measured and monitored; supervisors and managers have ready access to dashboards and reports. When assessing the move to crowd-based support, it is critical to know where you are starting from.
We look for data that tells us relative volumes across channels (phone, email, chat, web, social), as well as the per-case cost burden of each. Within each channel, we want to know the issue type mix. We generally see a mix of account / billing issues, product troubleshooting, how-to, and repair. The better we understand the mix, the better we can plan the transformation.
2. Identify issues for deflection
With our baseline in hand, we can start to look for issues that are ripe for transformation. What issues can be moved to self-service or crowd support? What issues require some level of assisted support? Often how-to, troubleshooting and non-repair service issues appear as logical candidates.
In working with customers on this process, we also look to outside sources to inform the strategy, such as social media monitoring data. If a customer community already exists, then this is also a key input. Data from these sources can serve as a reality check on our decisions – are customers already seeking support for these issues via social channels?
3. Set Your Targets
Now we are ready to start envisioning our future state. If we move x% of how-to issues from call to crowd, how does our channel mix change? What are the cost implications? Following through the model, we can start to plan a mix that optimizes the use of digital and community channels.
An important part of this exercise is to focus on achievable goals and a reasonable timeframe for the transition. It may be a goal to reduce call volume to zero – but that’s likely unachievable without unplugging the phones. Consumer behavior can change very quickly, but new initiatives need time to take hold, so consider a minimum six month outlook.
Also keep in mind other business drivers which may influence the support environment. Is a new product in the pipeline? A major change in service? These may drive call volume, or may represent unique opportunities to leverage the crowd.
4. Measure outcomes
The final step is to determine the key performance indicators and metrics that matter. Call volume and cost reduction are important measures of success, but we should also consider how the digital transformation impacts the overall customer experience. Think about the questions we want to answer:
Have we made it easier for a user to get an answer?
Are customers getting the best answer the first time?
Have we improved the overall support experience?
Establish these goals in the planning process and line them up against specific metrics. This exercise will also help highlight areas where good measurement tools or methodologies may not yet exist (and another opportunity for improvement).
Putting it all together
We now have an understanding of the current state, a set of issue types ripe for digital and crowd support, a target channel mix and tools in place to measure our progress – let the transformation begin!
In truth, we’ve only taken the first steps and are ready to turn focus to achieving the goals we’ve set. Now that we know where we are heading, we can begin to map out the strategy we need to get us there. That means examining the social support journey to reduce redundancy and friction points, making sources of self-service content highly visible, and clearly defining escalation paths, along with seeking out every opportunity to leverage our digital and community channels to create a great social customer experience.
Louis Peters is the Director of Social Strategy Consulting at Lithium Technologies. Since joining Lithium in 2011, he has helped dozens of clients to launch successful communities and consulted with established customers on ways to extend and innovate their social customer experience.
Prior to Lithium, Louis held consulting and management positions at leading software companies including Siebel and Oracle. You can follow him on twitter @lpetersjr
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