Friday, May 29th, 2020 | 14 min read
This article was written by Paul Korzeniowski from Customer Relationship Management
Companies naturally want to create and promote positive brand images. They spend loads of money to convince consumers that they are the best at what they do and that their products and services cannot be beat. How they meet that goal has changed through the years as alternative communication and entertainment channels emerged.
The rise of social media created a new type of promoter. Literally anyone with an Internet connection, a social media account, and a strong area of interest can influence others. They have long been sought by marketing departments, but now, businesses are trying to use these same social media influencers to enhance their customer service image, a process with potential as well as challenges.
The world constantly evolves. “An important change that happened recently with social media is that people connect in new ways, ones that they never had before,” says Grad Conn, chief experience and marketing officer at Sprinklr, a customer experience management (CXM) solutions provider. And with social distancing measures in place to control the spread of coronavirus, various social media channels look to play an even more vital role, in both our personal and business lives, in the months and years ahead.
These new channels are changing how consumers buy. In the past, customers looked to friends and family members for advice when making purchases. Then movie, TV, sports, and music celebrities moved the marketing needle. Nowadays, a new type of celebrity has at least as much influence, if not more, than all of them. Increasingly, consumers trust the opinion of online strangers much more than brand messaging, Conn notes.
Digital word of mouth is a phrase that Gartner coined to describe the process. The influencers’ rise started years ago with the emergence of bloggers and the use of long-form textbased content. Today, the emphasis is on visual messaging, like YouTube and Instagram, and anyone with a presence on those sites and a few followers can change opinions.
Still, not all content is relevant to everyone, and so it has become quite difficult for companies to cut through the clutter, says Sam Fiorella, a partner and customer experience strategist at Sensei Marketing. “There is so much information available today (Web 2.0, digital media, etc.) and so much noise (blogs, various news sources, etc.). Social media expanded content generation a hundredfold. Everyone is developing online content. With the change has come a growing feeling of skepticism. Individuals are leery of fake news. They look for trusted sources, turn inwardly, and rely on their peers more. Influencers gain their trust and offer companies an opportunity to quickly and directly link that trust to their brands.”
That’s as true in marketing as it is in customer service, the latest frontier for influencers.
When customers have bad experiences, many voice their displeasure by posting negative reviews or comments online. Rather than responding to the slights themselves, companies that provide excellent customer service create a strong, loyal customer base that ideally will advocate for them on their own and counter any negative impressions left by dissatisfied clients. Such groups have grown in importance because many social media exchanges skew toward the negative, inflammatory, and hyperbolic.
Companies are still searching for ways to leverage this emerging channel. “For customer service organizations, influencer marketing involves detecting satisfied clients and encouraging them to share their positive experiences with peers across social media portals, like Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter,” says Omer Minkara, a vice president and principal analyst in Aberdeen’s Contact Center & Customer Experience Management Practice.
Contact centers capture customer information in a variety of ways with call monitoring, surveys, web monitoring, and speech and sentiment analytics products. CRM programs aim to further increase value by looking at customer buying patterns. Social influencing offers contact centers a means to extend those tentacles further and gain new insights into customer behavior.
But companies need to make dramatic changes to take this step. They must extend their CRM functionality and data warehouses to capture and store social network information, such as an individual’s streams, messages, mentions, and likes. They also need tools that monitor those channels, identify content that mentions them, pinpoint the creator, and help them forge relationships with influencers.
A variety of solutions, dubbed influencer relationship management systems, emerged to fill this void. Vendors like Creator IQ, Four Starzz Media, Grin, Influative, Sprinklr, and Wooly sell these types of systems, which can identify items such as influencers’ interests, preferred ways of communication, social profiles, numbers of followers, and types of content produced.
Such work is difficult for a few reasons. Companies must track a massive volume of social media data. The Sprinklr system, for example, tracks 11 messaging systems, 23 social media platforms, and 500 million blogs, according to Sprinklr’s Conn, but there are certainly more out there than that.
Collecting the information is only a first step. Businesses also need to interpret social media information and understand what makes influencers tick, Fiorella advises.
Then they need to unify the social media and CRM data, a challenging endeavor. “Most CRM systems focus on efficiency and have [key performance indicators] top of mind. They want to reduce the number of calls, deflect voice calls to other channels, and reduce handle times,” Minkara says.
And then CRM system managers need to extend their outlooks beyond the traditional bailiwicks. IT departments and other parts of the company need to revamp internal business processes.
In sum, firms must not only identify the key influencers but also bridge gaps between business units, like customer service and marketing. Linking CRM and social influencer solutions requires a significant technical and organizational integration effort because they have antithetical designs, goals, and business processes.
Some companies have even created a chief customer experience officer’s role to focus on that work, Minkara says.
To be successful, companies must identify the right influencers. Common methods center on the number of their followers on Twitter and/or Instagram; the number of subscribers to their YouTube channels; and their account activity, such as the number of posts, views, likes, and retweets.
But such metrics can be misleading. In many cases, customer advocates’ reach is small but powerful. They develop very loyal followings, so their opinions carry a lot of weight. New terms, such as microinfluencers and nanoinfluencers, describe these individuals. Typically, they have relatively modest social media profiles, with fewer than 25,000 followers, but they often drive more effective engagement than individuals with larger audiences. “Microinfluencers are effective because they have a lot of authenticity,” says Jay Wilson, a vice president of research at Gartner.
After identifying such individuals, companies need to build relationships with them. Influencers are passionate in their beliefs and, in many cases, carve out growing businesses based on their personal interests. Companies need to understand what motivates them and then reach out to them in effective ways. The process usually starts with following them-perhaps liking and retweeting their posts-and sometimes grows into a formal business relationship.
Companies also need to connect their influencers’ activities to business performance. They must determine which role specific influencers will play in their marketing, sales, and support functions. Will they boost brand awareness? Can they build interest around a new product or service? Can they develop a new target audience?
After aligning the influencer’s role with specific goals, they then need to deploy metrics and data analytics to track what happens. Possible metrics include engagements per post, conversions per post, and conversions per campaign. Only with such metrics in place can they understand their return on influencer spending.
Social media influencer marketing is still early in development, so effective measurements are evolving. Making a purchase is a multistep process where many factors influence a final decision. Trying to separate them and gauge how much each played is challenging because the data is complex and dynamic. It involves a variety of information (positive and negative feedback, solicited and unsolicited, across multiple brands and product lines) that come in different structured and unstructured formats.
The volumes and possible correlations are so vast that artificial intelligence is the only way to coordinate and correlate social media influencer information, according to Conn.
While such tools can be helpful, they are not flawless. “A company does need to put some quantifiable method in place to track the impact an influencer program has on the business,” Minkara argues. “Usually, the metric is about 80 percent science and 20 percent art.”
What is measured can also vary. Typically, businesses think in terms of sales, but influencers might impact the company in other ways. “Being associated with quality content may boost a brand’s image,” Gartner’s Wilson says.
A very vexing issue is how formal influencer relationships should be. Usually, companies start by simply following the person. Once their influence is understood, the desire to tighten the bond grows, and best practices become murkier. “A lot of our clients ask for our advice about compensating influences,” Wilson says.
Sprinklr’s Conn is against influencer compensation: “Paying someone immediately pollutes their credibility and validity. Even if the company does not try to hide its relationship, a level of mistrust develops. Who knows if the positive words come from their opinion or the money they are given? I also think such an approach is amateurish. Instead, the corporation should focus on engaging with its customers more effectively and providing them with amazing experiences. If you do that, customers will say something good about you.”
The other issue is that compensation can take many forms. Some companies might provide influencers with perks, like discounts, product samples, upgrades, loyalty program points, and public recognition. Each individual has unique preferences, so it is challenging to determine the best ways to encourage influencers.
Compensation also starts simply-say, sending influencers a thank-you note when they mention the company-and can ramp up to include sample merchandise, discounts, gift cards, and money. Paying individuals on a random basis avoids the appearance of impropriety and does not taint the trust that influencers have gained, according to Fiorella.
For those reasons, companies should make a conscious decision and install formal business processes for compensating influencers. “The same disclosure rules apply to social media as seen in other marketing channels,” Gartner’s Wilson says.
The Federal Trade Commission demands that companies identify anyone receiving compensation from them. Historically, that requirement meant separating actors from customers in traditional media advertising. Wilson recommends extending that approach to social media, even when it involves company employees.
Another challenge is that the term “influencer” itself is imprecise, and different categories are emerging. “Influencer is a rather subjective term, but the most common definition in marketing programs refers to individuals who have more-than-average influence in the purchase and loyalty decisions of others,” Minkara says.
Distinctions arise from the types of relationships forged between companies and the social media stars. Gartner labels influencers as individuals paid to talk about a brand without having a true connection to it.
Often, too, social media influencer programs take a shotgun approach. “Corporations relying on celebrities typically had a push strategy, where they cast a wide net and tried to catch as many fish as possible,” Fiorella explains. “They take the audience largely sight unseen and with little differentiation, so it is hard to track the ROI from such promotions.”
Another variation of influencer programs involves a process called advocate marketing, where companies look to existing customers who are loyal and convince them to speak up for the brand. Such work could start simply. “One of the biggest mistakes companies make is neglecting to ask satisfied customers if they will act as a referral or provide a testimonial for them,” Fiorella states. Once consumers agree, companies have to make it simple (a few clicks) for them to take that step.
Social media influencer marketing provides customer service leaders with an opportunity to leverage positive customer experiences. This area has been rising in importance, and the tools to track such initiatives have been rapidly evolving. Best practices are a work in progress. As a result, organizations need to tread carefully so they gain the potential benefits and avoid the many potential missteps in building successful social influencer campaigns.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering CRM issues for more than two decades, is based in Andover, Mass., and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PaulKorzeniowski.
Copyright Information Today, Inc. May 2020
This article was written by Paul Korzeniowski from Customer Relationship Management and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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