Social media perks - how @ChilternRailway rewards its regular customers

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Earlier this year I wrote about how Chiltern Railways were using twitter for customer service.

Aside from their responsive Twitter account, I was also impressed by the company’s use of foursquare to reward the “mayor” of Marylebone station with the privilege of switching on the Christmas lights -  an innovative way to recognise a loyal customer.

Last year the mayor of the station was approached unexpectedly and asked to turn on the lights, but this year Chiltern Railways adjusted the format, turning it into a competition. So with Christmas approaching, I set myself the target of being the mayor of Marylebone station this year.

As there were more people aware of this special reward this year, the company elected to create a new location on foursquare (in this case, the location was for the tree itself) and promoted the event with signage in the station and on Twitter. This gave a fresh start and level playing field to all customers.

As it turns out, I was successful in my campaign to secure the mayorship, and so on Monday evening I had the rather surreal experience of being introduced by Chad Collins, General Manager South of Chiltern Railways, as the person counting down and switching on the lights at Marylebone.

The whole event was both weird and wonderful, but has definitely left me feeling like a mobilised advocate for Chiltern Railways. I was touched by the effort and arrangements, the official photographer, the PA system (that rivalled the station’s tannoy) and the special signage and music - it was all pretty serious, even if for a minor internet celebrity (at best!).

I’m certainly looking forward to next year, and hope to see other companies using social media to offer this sort of special one-off reward. As well as being fun, I expect that Chiltern Railways may also be able to discover new advocates by identifying those who were really driven to check in multiple times for the mayorship.

Incidentally I came across this fantastic foursquare perk, with an American mall reserving a parking space for the mayor - what a clever idea!

The power of customer advocacy in a social media crisis

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Image by PhotoGraham via Flickr

Every brand with a Facebook page is at risk of a social media crisis. It could arise from any number of scenarios - from ostensibly innocuous customer complaints to a huge backlash against your perceived values. A brand’s Facebook wall is now often the first stop for anyone wanting to make their fury known, and if word of that fury spreads you may find yourself on the receiving-end of a seemingly endless barrage of complaints.

Knowing how and when to respond is essential and we would always recommend a detailed crisis management plan and escalation policy as a top priority to any company using social media. It is not always appropriate for you to respond to comments online and a good crisis management plan will clearly lay out when you should respond (and how) and when you shouldn’t.

However, in addition to what you do and how your brand responds, the best brands in social media often don’t have to respond at all. Their advocates do it for them. There are always some issues and queries that you will need to respond to (specific details of their account, complaints about your service) but in many cases having other customers to respond instead of you (or as well as you) can be even more powerful.

There can be a temptation to think that only the most lauded brands such as Apple or Gucci have strong advocates, but this is not true. Every brand has advocates, people who are loyal to your brand, products, people or services and will go out of their way to tell others about this. Identifying your advocates is one task, you then need to cultivate and build relationships with them online.

Here are three tips of how you can build relationships with advocates online:

1. Involve them in your product development processes

When we work with advocates for brands, the thing they most often discuss is ideas for the brand. Things they know don’t always work in the product. Ways the product could be improved. Things they have seen that competitors and substitutes do. Advocates are often the people who have the deepest knowledge of your product and want to talk to you about it. If you make it easy for them to do this and give them access to real decision makers at your brand you will build huge social credibility with them.

2. Let them try new products first

Advocates want to try your products and will tell others about them. Whilst giving out endless freebies is not a sustainable or sensible policy, giving samples of products (especially new products) to those who advocate your brand makes sense. They will give you instant and honest feedback, will feel rewarded by getting access to product before anybody else, and will help you to spread the message about your product before its launched.

3. Get to know them

Finally, but most importantly, you need to get to know your advocates. Spend time talking to them and getting to know them so that you can have a conversation with them on a human level. On a Facebook page that we run for pet owners we know the names of our advocates dogs, we chat to them about what their dogs have done at the weekend and know when it is their birthdays. Why? Because we’re genuinely interested in them as people and as dog owners and want to get to know them. If you are to make the most of your advocates you have to be genuinely interested in them and in their lives. This kind of honesty will be clear to them and will mean that you can have a real interaction with them on a human level.

The new social order: Trends and opportunities in social software

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There’s a great article over at MyCustomer.com about how social networks and online communities can add value to the customer experience (see article here), building on a recent report by the 451 Group.

The article is a great read and explores how firms are meeting their current and future social software needs. Indeed, the research is a validation of how young the market for such software is - of the 2,081 firms interviewed for the research, only 24% are currently using social software of any kind. Of those who are using this software, there is a spread of use between larger vendors, newer organisations and open source.

What’s interesting is to look at the intended use of those who are planning to implement social software, 23% plan to use open source software. Just slightly more than the 22% who plan to build something themselves. It is only after these two categories that the larger vendors appear - the Microsofts and Googles of the social software world. In fact some of the best enterprise-level solutions aren’t from the big providers, but from open source or from organisations who combine the software with other services, such as community management, insight, customer relations or marketing.

People are using social software for a variety of business needs, and many companies are looking to firms who can help them with both the business need and the software.

Social media metrics

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Next week I’m speaking at the SocialMediaInfluence conference in London on Measuring Influence and Audience online. It’s a tricky subject and looking around today I have been unable to find any examples of an approach which has been successfully and repeatedly applied.

The problem appears to be that whilst there are a whole range of metrics that we can measure in social media (see The Social Organisation blog for a fairly comprehensive list) but none of these truly gets to the crux of the problem. What we want to do is know is to measure the influence that a single blogger, commenter or video upload has. What is the value of a blog post praising Coca-Cola in terms that Coca-Cola could understand and measure. As many of our clients ask us, what’s the ROI of encouraging this kind of activity.

The answer is that it’s difficult to measure, not because we don’t have a range of metrics (we do) but because at the moment our understanding of what causes a particular post or a particular individual to be influential is limited. We can measure proxies, such as trackbacks, links to the site from other sites (and the number of links to the sites that link there). But these really only reflect an inherent influence that we still haven’t measured.

What we really want to know is how influential is everybody that is exposed to an piece of content, and how influential are all the people they influence. Of course calculating this number would be difficult if not impossible. And the information you need to gather would be huge. It really wouldn’t be worthwhile.

Which is why some more basic measure is needed. Take the sites like Dell’s Ideastorm and MyStarbucksIdea. These get peers to vote posts up or down depending how relevant they think they are. You can then migrate only the more popular posts to the front page or the top of the list. This kind of rough approach might be a crowd-sourced way of measuring influence. We know that the most popular posts are those that people in the community think the brand needs to listen to most. Perhaps this is the only measure of influence we need.

Measuring influence online

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People talk about your brand everywhere online. A search in Google would find hundreds if not thousands of places where people are talking about or commenting on your brand. You could be mistaken for thinking that the rise of social media has led to people being exposed to more discussions about your brand that you don’t control. And you might think this is dangerous and get concerned about each of those hundreds or thousands of discussions.

But the mistake in this analysis is to assume that every discussion is equal. They’re not. A blog that criticises your brand but is read by hardly anybody is of very little importance to you. In fact the majority of discussions about your brand will each only have a very small audience. You don’t need to occupy yourself with them all, but rather with those which are repeatedly discussing you, or those that have significant influence.

This raises the question of how you measure influence. Aside from a very small number of well read bloggers, it is difficult at first glance to identify how influential somebody is online. You could look at how many posts they’ve made on a forum - but if nobody is reading them then that’s not a great measure.

Of more use is to measure the network effect that an individual has. How many forums or blogs are they active on and how many people read their posts on these sites? How many social networks are they a member of and how many friends do they have there?

These measures are much more useful when it comes to measuring influence - if somebody posts something about your brand how many different people will see it and how much will they trust the poster?

To some extent these measures can be made into a simple formula. Take each social network that somebody is a member of and give it a weighting for importance - so one that is more specific to your brand or product might be weighted more than a generic social network. So, taking a brand that sells baby products, a social network specifically for mums might be weighted twice as heavily as a Facebook. You can then multiply this number by the number of contacts you have on each site to get a measure of influence by site. And sum them to get a measure for the poster overall.

For example, Poster A has 100 friends on a Mum’s site (weighted 2) and 350 friends on Facebook (weighted 1) would have a total influence measure of 550. Compare this with Poster B, with 150 friends on a Mum’s site but only 70 friends on Facebook. Their influence measure would be 370.

So Poster A is about half as influential again as Poster B.

This is a good basis for a measure of influence and a way of finding the people you need to track and engage online. The problem at the moment is that the data needed to make this formula work isn’t readily available. Back to the drawing board maybe.