Control and the Social Business

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Companies are afraid of a world where customers control the messaging around their brand.

This is understandable, since whether you’re a corporation with decades long history or a smaller business the idea of having a customer compare you to Satan on widely available channels like Twitter or Facebook is unpleasant.

That all too common possibility, and others like it, create an interesting tension for companies that want to transition into being a social business, because “social business” doesn’t mean that you are just listening to or talking with customers, it means you invest in understanding them, and sometimes even inviting them to own part of what you do.

Listening to customers is something most businesses are willing to do, but letting them drive adoption of your brand and products, and even affect your product development, that’s scary territory. Add to that the fact that many conversations happen on platforms that companies don’t have a lot of control over, and you can see why executives often say “yes, we’re a social business” but their actions suggest otherwise. It’s an extremely uncomfortable place, whether at the Fortune 500 level, a smaller, faster moving startup, or somewhere in-between.

And it’s often not about money, either.

Noah Wasserman broke this dynamic down in his seminal book about how  startups grow, The Founder’s Dilemma. He describes the problem concisely: when building a company, the founder will be forced at some point to choose between being king and being rich.

For companies shifting into being a social business, part of that wealth translates to the conversations sustained across owned properties (website, blog, forums, email newsletter) and borrowed platforms (Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter). In other words, you can have it your way or you can be vastly successful  in creating a community of value (and one that’s monetizable), but it’s rarely possible to have both.

Here, in an excerpt from her recent book Evolve, ARCOMPANY Founder & CEO Hessie Jones digs into what executives have to think about to give up control and embrace wealth (community and otherwise), and what being a social business really means…

The sustainability of today’s business in a world increasingly controlled by the customer seems daunting for many businesses who are used to and, in many cases, hell bent on, maintaining the status quo with respect to how they market their products and communicate with their customers.

The pundits are saying this:

In order to adapt to the market of tomorrow you, as a business, have to listen to what your customers are saying. You have to make it a priority to build your business around the customer, NOT the other way around.

So one would assume that the more you know about your customer, the better you can target messaging to them in ways that will optimize how the communication is received.

This is the reason why many Marketers are encouraging brands to develop relationships with their customers. Here’s the glitch, though…


In last year’s Corporate Executive Board (CEB) study of 7,000 consumers, 23% said they have a relationship with a brand. However it was also discovered, for most consumers, increased interactions don’t drive relationships and often work against purchases.

What the researchers discovered, without realizing it, was that many marketers are only adding to the information bombardment consumers feel as they shop a category, reducing stickiness rather than enhancing it.

I had an interesting discussion with Doug Stephens, Author of The Retail Revival and Kerry Morrison, CEO of Norm. We all agreed that the value of Big Data is slowly becoming the Holy Grail to business, hoping to find the sweet spot that can determine what drives a consumer to buy. However, consumers are wary of the amount of information that is available to business especially in the face of the NSA scandal.

Whether this will compel government to make business more transparent about the information they collect OR allow the consumer to have more control over what personal information is shared remains to be seen.

The truth of the matter is that it’s difficult to break habits. Expecting that future generations will be more closed off from social networks is not realistic. Payment systems and mobile will increasingly compound this wealth of data.

No one is really immune to the inevitability of the data solutions for business as this sort of intelligence becomes increasingly prevalent.

On the other side of the fence…


Doug Stephens said it best,

“The CEO, who has 5 years to retirement, is not going to be the maverick and attempt to develop new ways of doing things, especially where he’s in unfamiliar territory.”

Companies typically operate within a defined period. Employees are compensated based on performance. Objectives are defined and results are collected within those timeframes.

  • Sales
  • Retention
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Churn Rates

These are the standard measures to benchmark company and individual performance. However, as everyone knows, relationship building takes time.

The value of content, interactions and other relationship drivers will take time to impact the larger organizational goals. In these cases, results begin to develop beyond the set timeframe a company is willing to allow.

The balance lies in ensuring that the consumer doesn’t have the business by the nose. On the flip side, business must understand, in aggregate as well as at the consumer level, the information that impacts parts of the purchase cycle. If there is no relationship, then both have to come to an agreement of give-and-take.

  • What do I, as a business have to do to retain you, as a customer?
  • What am I, as a customer, willing to give you, the business, to keep me satisfied and coming back?

As a customer, I want the best product and the best service. I want it at my convenience and at the price I’m willing to pay. No, I don’t want to be solicited but sometimes I’m willing to look at offers that are relevant to me at that time.


The solution comes down to communications.

Whether it’s called a “relationship” or not, there has to be some sort of communication that allows each party to get what they want.

If Big Data is to provide insight, it will allow brands to understand these things:

  • How their external factors influence their purchase behavior
  • Who they turn to for advice for the type of product sold by the brand
  • The reason they want or don’t want that product

Doug Stephens spoke about a time when, if brands don’t make drastic moves to “understand” their customers, channel preferences, and how they want to be communicated with, then the onus will be on the customer to be the control channel that dictates information they want to disclose, and how they want to be communicated, etc.

I still believe, however, that companies out there want to do the right thing to create a sustainable business. CRM is a reliable model that is reinventing itself in the social channels. This is what the new vanguard is all about. It doesn’t have to stifle a business but can allow it to evolve in other ways.

As for relationship, it’s just a word.

At the end of the day, it’s an understanding that aligns both the business and customer on the same plane. It’s this understanding that sustains the business and keeps the customer coming back


Featured image courtesy of wikipedia | public domain 

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