As marketers, we’re tempted to view social media as some sort of miracle cure: we’re able to reach millions of potential customers with our carefully crafted square photo or 140-character message for almost free!
But the reality is that once we open the social media door, our customers expect that they’ll be able to — gasp! — talk directly to us through that very same medium. And this might present a challenge if we’re viewing social only as a one-way communication stream. Customers expect they’ll be able to reach us, that we’re listening and that we’ll respond quickly. That expectation becomes even more critical if they feel they’ve been wronged by your company in some way.
If you don’t already view social as a two-way street, here are a few tips to get you prepared for the everyday — or even crisis — communication with your audiences:
1. Designate a chain of communication. Chances are, if you are a marketer running social channels — or you’re managing social for one of your clients — you don’t have all the answers. Put a team in place to be able to respond to questions or problems so that you have someone to turn to when a customer asks a question on Facebook that you don’t have the answer to or tweets a complaint to you. Nearly half of all customers expect a response within 60 minutes, and you can’t waste that time trying to decide who should answer the question. All members of the chain should be aware of what role they play, and the need to respond quickly. Ideally, you’ll practice some scenarios so you’re ready if a situation unfolds.
2. Have set answers prepared. Many of your requests will be predictable ones. “Where can I find a distributor for your products in my country?” is one we frequently get from customers on one of our clients’ social channels, so we have an easy way to get them that answer without going through the chain of communication. Determine — or attempt to predict — what kinds of questions or complaints you might get and have set answers ready to go that your social team can easily supply at a moment’s notice.
3. Be prepared to play firefighter. When a small fire erupts is NOT the time to go to the store to buy a fire extinguisher. Likewise, when a small crisis appears and your social channels get clogged with complaints or questions, that’s not the time to learn how to respond. A little problem can quickly become a big one if you don’t handle things right on your social channels. Always have a crisis communications plan in place, and that should include how you communicate on social media. Think of worst-case scenarios and have a plan: one of your delivery trucks is involved in an accident; there’s a fire at your plant; one of your products is suspected of injuring or sickening customers; you have a product recall. (This blog post has 3 great examples of social media crisis management.)
4. Consider suspending pre-planned communication. If you’re a smart marketer, you’ve got an editorial calendar for your social media communication. However, if a problem begins to appear or a crisis erupts, you might want to consider whether it “looks right” to be happily tweeting about your latest new product at the same time that you’re responding to customers complaining about the defective version they bought last month.
5. Empower your team. If you delight a customer — even a complaining one on social media — he or she can be as effective an ambassador for your brand as you can be. When two long-time and loyal Chipotle customers got home after a drive-through visit and realized their order had been made all wrong, a complaint on social media led to a handwritten card in the mail with coupons for two free burritos or bowls. “Sam” from the Chipotle team didn’t need to run through a communications chain to get permission to satisfy a disgruntled customer; he (or she) had been empowered to make customers happy. Fourteen dollars’ worth of coupons was turned into hundreds of dollars’ worth of return visits — and possibly many times that ROI through social mentions (and this blog entry!).
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and there has been much more written about the topic. Here’s a great post by Hootsuite about social media crisis management. Above all, be prepared and don’t fall into the trap of viewing social as a one-way communications street.