We've been hearing for a while now that folks are using e-mail and instant messaging less in favor of communicating on social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. Maybe. But I agree with GigaOm's Om Malik that, for most people, e-mail "remains the hub of our Internet experience."
Think about it. Facebook, Twitter and other social services still use e-mail to help keep us in the loop about our activities on their sites. With e-mail not leaving the communications mix any time soon, companies must figure out how to use e-mail and all of the other channels in ways that please their customers. More important, they need to figure out which approaches work and which don't.
It sounds like that's what ExactTarget has in mind following its recent purchase of CoTweet. ExactTarget specializes in e-mail marketing, while CoTweet helps companies manage their presence on Twitter. In a recent discussion of the deal on The New York Times, ExactTarget CEO Scott Dorsey said:
What we're finding is that social media, e-mail and mobile marketing management software is all siloed. There's an opportunity to create one dashboard and digital platform to manage all communications out there. Companies have to understand how they're engaging with a consumer across all kinds of digital media.
Social channels are repositories of siloed information just as often as traditional enterprise applications, if not more so. At least with enterprise applications, companies recognize the need to integrate different data streams, have been cracking away on the problem for years and have enlisted support from vendors. (Sure, sometimes the "support" seems like little more than lip service, but vendors largely do try to offer integration when and where it makes sense.) IT Business Edge's Loraine Lawson last week wrote about the growing need for companies to consolidate information from various social channels in one place, perhaps on their Web sites.
A holistic view of customers and their social media activities is something that even companies lauded for their social media mastery, like Dell, haven't yet been able to attain. When I interviewed Dell (cool title alert) Chief Blogger Lionel Menchaca in May for a story about corporate blogging, he told me the biggest challenges around a broad social media strategy involved connecting the various channels, both to "bring content from all of our channels to different audiences as it becomes relevant to them" and to help Dell plumb the decentralized content for insights. And, he added, it's tough simply making time to devote to all the core channels.
The interview with Dorsey and CoTweet CEO Jesse Engle contains plenty of advice on using social media, much of which has been conveyed before in this space but merits repeating. Because folks using social channels have "an expectation of transparency and authenticity," said Engle, companies must offer both of those things. He said:
You have to be real and acknowledge shortcomings and failures and places where products or services break down. You have to demonstrate through engagement that you are really interested in what customers have to say, who they share media with and how they share them.
I've made that point numerous times, including this discussion of negative online customer reviews in which I used a quote from my interview with Clara Shih, author of "The Facebook Era" and a social marketer extraordinaire. Cautioning companies not to "sanitize" such comments, she told me:
I don't think it's a bad thing for there to sometimes be negative comments about your company. It's how we get better. It's how we respond to those comments. I think it's a little suspicious if you go to a discussion forum and there are never any complaints.
Indeed, thoughtful responses to negative online reviews can improve customer conversion rates. It certainly works this way in the offline world. If a restaurant manager goes to the trouble of apologizing for a bad meal or slow service, explains the anomalous nature of a problem and refunds the cost or otherwise makes it right, I'll be far more likely to give the place another try. And I'll probably even tell my friends about it.
Messages must be tailored to different mediums, Dorsey said. While e-mail offers an opportunity to present images and content that can drive customers back to a Web site, Twitter inolves short, pithy conversations, thanks to its 140-character limit. While e-mail is primarily a one-way, broadcast-style communications medium, Twitter is bi-directional and demands more back-and-forth interaction. Companies cannot ignore Twitter because of the level of critical mass it has attained and its real-time nature, said Engle. He categorized Facebook as "optional" and Twitter as "a must-have."