What is social media for?

I’ve recently been at a few events on digital issues, and I’m off to Helsinki early tomorrow morning to do a workshop with colleagues there on digital communication. So I guess these issues have been at the forefront of my mind. In that light, I thought that the little anecdote of what happened today was pretty illustrative and worth sharing.

My brother lives in Borneo and I am visiting him in July. I had booked my ticket through Trailfinders, so he has asked me to talk to them about booking his ticket back to spend Christmas here. I went on their site, hoping to send them a message asking about it.

Their submit an enquiry form requires a level of detail I’m not ready to provide. Their contact us page is only telephone numbers and physical stores. I just wanted to ask if they can book a trip that starts and returns to outside the UK, so I thought, I’ll send them a quick tweet and ask if that’s possible. No sign of a twitter name on their site, so I did a search and found this article: ‘Social media gimmicky and not for us’ says Trailfinders

I think the position of Trailfinders makes a serious error and that’s about seeing social media as a marketing tool. Maybe the problem is the name: calling it ‘social media’ puts it in the same mental box as ad spend and newspaper/magazine coverage. What we are really talking about are tools for connecting people, to do whatever it is that they want to do with our organisation/brand/company. Seeing it as part of your marketing is why companies (wrongly) staff corporate twitter accounts with comms people, not client/customer service people. If I contact Virgin media by twitter about a problem, I don’t want them to reply with a phone number, I want them to answer my question. This is how people talk to each other now.

This attitude to social media also highlights something else I try to encourage people to consider, which is that the value of social is its intelligence function. You can quickly find out what people are saying about you. A search for ‘trailfinders’ on Twitter found a mixture: one irate guy whose flights had been changed and he hadn’t been informed, and several people highlighting how good the service is. Why would a company not want a more or less free way of finding out exactly what their customers are saying?

We’re in a transitional phase and I understand that it will take time for mindsets to change. But companies and organisations need to think about talking the language of their customers, and that also means connecting with them in ways that work for them. I’ve had great on-the-phone service from Trailfinders, but I have to admit that their inability to communicate with me in a way I feel comfortable with does make me feel a tiny bit less positive about them.

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