THE SOCIAL CLUB

If you read a fraction of the articles online about digital marketing, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that were Indiana Jones around today, he’d be wasting his time looking for the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark.  The only Holy Grail worth the search today, it seems, is ‘socially engaged customers’ with social media platforms providing the map to the treasure.

Engaged customers are a 21st century brand’s advocates, a growing army of loyal Facebook fans and tweebs that lead the path to wisdom, wealth and wonderment on the World Wide Web.

I’ve been a passionate fan of my football team since my age was expressed in single digits.  Not a day passes that I don’t check the newswires for the latest news, views and speculation.  I spend more money supporting my club than I do buying music and books. I’m a valuable member of the club and I have a membership card.

The thing is my club is also a commercial business, operating globally.  It has a stock market listing and shareholders.  The majority shareholder is an American businessman; the second largest is a Russian Oligarch.  As a business, the club sets out to make a profit and, maybe unusual for a Premiership club these days, it succeeds.  Despite my ‘club’ being a worldwide commercial endeavour, I remain a passionate Arsenal fan.

Other football fans feel the same way about their clubs, as do many members of golf and other clubs.  In the battle to create more loyal ‘fans’, why don’t more businesses treat their customers more like club members? – and I don’t mean the introduction of a loyalty scheme or those little ‘buy six, get one free’ cards in coffee shops.

I have a membership card from my bank but it’s not a club. I even have a private banking advisor – who admits (privately, of course) that his role is to sell me services I don’t want or need.  I have loyalty cards from various stores that I’m indifferent about and think about only when at the checkout.  They’re not clubs and I’m not a member.

At the lower end, there are shopping clubs like Costco and Christmas saving clubs, but little else.  Now you might argue that my club is older than the average business today, that it has a history and a legacy that makes it different in the supporter’s mind.  Boots the Chemist was established in 1849, Marks & Spencer in 1884, Shell in 1907 and BT in 1846.  Arsenal was established in 1886.

Social media or digital marketing can help create fans and maintain those ‘one-on-one’ conversations that businesses desire and social media delivers.

My football club uses social media extensively and well.  Win, lose or draw, I get an email from the manager shortly after every game with his thoughts.  If I can’t see the game, it broadcasts an audio commentary.  If I lose my hearing, they tweet me with updates.

But a social media strategy alone doesn’t make a business a club.  Despite the hype, social media can’t fix everything.  The challenge starts further upstream, in a business’ values and approach to customers.

Too many businesses today view the customer service department as a cost of failure, existing only because products and services are unreliable.  Because customer service is more about the product going wrong than the customer being treated right, they try to automate the operation or minimise the cost by offshoring these operations to a low cost economy.

A ‘club’, on the other hand, thinks about its members differently. That is why members think differently about their clubs.

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PREMATURE ADJUDICATION

Even when the dust settles, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the true cost of the phone hacking scandal that slayed the News of the World but my pen has been working with Google and the back of a fag packet.

Write offs on closure of News of the World: £244 million. 

Compensation by News Intl to hacking victims: £120 million (est).

Metropolitan Police Investigation costs: £40 million.

Leveson Inquiry costs and expenses: £3 million (est).

Justice: Priceless.

Today, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which is made up of a cross party group of MPs, issued a wide-ranging report on the scandal. Among the findings, the report concluded that “… Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”

If Murdoch fails the ‘fit and proper person’ test currently being assessed by Ofcom, the media and communications regulator, it will have serious and far-reaching consequences for the man and his business.

Now, I never got around to finishing my law degree, but the assessment of ‘fit and proper’ was outside the remit of the Committee.  Given that the Committee’s hurry to adjudicate as such, and the fact that every news outlet from the BBC to the Ham and High Gazette have run the story, and that Ofcom operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, what chance does Murdoch of a fair trial?  I’m not feeling sorry for the man,  but If I was Murdoch’s lawyer, I might have a go at making that case.

So now I’m left wondering whether our elected officials flushed justice down the drain today.

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VANITY UNFAIR

 When you’re working in the comms dept and a senior executive you don’t know terribly well walks unexpected into your office, sits down and starts by asking how the family is, there’s a strong likelihood the conversation will turn to what they can do personally to help you ‘raise the profile’ of the business.

This usually means one of two things: either they want to give their old school chums an opportunity to see how successful they’ve become; or they’re looking for a new job and believe a profile needs raising, but not necessarily the company’s.

I was having a related discussion with a former colleague over the weekend.  My friend’s boss, a divisional leader whose relatively tender years belie her advanced ambition, was insisting she be introduced to the speaking circuit outside her sector and expertise.  This, the boss was sure, would help secure a lucrative non-executive directorship or two.

“It’s unnecessary work for me, it’s not a corporate objective and it’s a distraction for my team,” my friend explained.  “She has no idea how much time and effort is required and refuses to let me recruit someone to manage it as a project.”  It all sounded more vanity publishing than Vanity Fair to me, and not an unfamiliar challenge.

It’s a conundrum.  Where does your responsibility to promote the company end and to help build the individual’s career begin?  The challenge is exacerbated by the ease with which such activity (establishing mainstream thought leadership, demonstrating a commitment to diversity etc etc) can be justified. Furthermore, the art of public relations doesn’t have an activity-off-switch – there’s always something else you can do.

The reality is that if you’re raising the profile of a business or institution, and no one is getting a little bit famous in the process, you’re doing it a little bit wrong.  Corporations need people to help bring the story alive but you also need to keep a check that you’re not creating a bit of a publicity monster in the process.

There was little advice I could offer my friend, except to point out the tactics I have used when faced with similar vanity publishing assignments over the years:

  • Suggest they deploy their abundant skills ‘internally’ first.  It’s always a challenge to get senior managers to take employee engagement seriously and to dedicate time to meet the troops in a regional satellite operation on a Friday afternoon.
  • Find a low level speaking opportunity or two on the circuit they want to join. These are easier to secure and if the speaker does well first time out, better and bigger opportunities may follow.
  • Remind them that social media is networking for the 21st century and help them create a blog/Linkedin/twitter account – reminding them that authenticity demands that it’s their voice, not yours, that’s heard.
  • Introduce them to a specialist PR agency or speaker bureau that will appreciate the work and hope the executive agrees to fund the cost out of their budget, if not their own pocket.

If all else fails, you could always get yourself out and about in the hope that you get noticed and that the new job YOU’RE offered doesn’t come with the same vanity challenge.

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