Information vs. Engagement: Are You Giving People What They Need?

kris-biz-3I don’t expect this to be an overly popular post – I have brought this conversation up several times – I even moderated the #sm42 chat about it, and it almost always results in a backlash of folks that claim all social media communication is about engagement, and I am wrong to think otherwise. But still… I think otherwise. I just can’t let go of the notion we can make social media work even more efficiently and effectively for all concerned.

I’m not against engagement and talking to people. Obviously I talk to lots of people who talk to me on Twitter, and do my best to engage both new people I don’t know and people I consider friends. As well as prospects, clients and various companies and brands. I am a user advocate, after all, so I get it. Using Twitter, Facebook and various other social platforms to develop mutually beneficial or even just interesting relationships with others is not new. Using these platforms to solicit web traffic, sell a book, product or service or promote yourself as a celebrity or expert of some type is really becoming yesterday’s news, as well. People are jumping onto these platforms by droves to take advantage of the marketing opportunities, and to provide a listening ear or customer support also. There is definitely marketing value, in listening to people and acknowledging what they have to say about your company… it takes finesse sometimes, which savvy social media marketers and community managers have (or anyone tweeting for your company) in order to read the needs and then meet them, for the particular individual you’re dealing with.

But I know there’s more we can do, with all the people, and the easy, instant access, and the short-burst communication and the open api’s and ability to integrate technology online, where it can be accessed from anywhere there’s a computer and internet connection. So much more. Some enterprising local companies are taking orders over Twitter and having food or drink ready for the person when they arrive. Delivery companies are finding ways to use Twitter. Cabs can be ordered and dispatched. Shipments can be tracked. I even had an interaction with a great company called Gourmet Library and they changed their site for me that night, to add a suggested feature. Now THIS, this is a beautiful way to use these unexpected (a few years ago) resources in ways that can benefit our bottom lines and improve our business processes.

Still… people go on and on about engagement and almost can’t stand to have a conversation including social media that doesn’t put the total emphasis on that singular concept. I understand why – lots of companies and business people are on Twitter, but they don’t all do it like we wish they would. Some of them are stiff, not overly chatty or friendly. Some are defensive. Some of them have an account name and don’t even tweet or acknowledge things being said about them at all. Some users/customers/prospects DO choose another company based on the lack of interaction, by the way. Some send out automated, crappy sales solicitations and annoy you. Some just listen – you know they are – using all the real-time streaming as intelligence but they don’t deign to respond. Some intervene too much – maybe you want to vent about your hideous tasting sandwich from a fast food chain, but don’t want to be confronted about it in public. So all the advice and the opinions and feedback about how to develop these relationships online is definitely warranted.

But is “engagement” the ONLY need that people have? I’ve been thinking about this a long, long time. I believe people/users/customers/buyers/employees have needs, and engaging with a company representative in order to meet the need is only one facet of a holistic plan to be implemented.

For you, in your life, what’s the fastest way to go about getting a particular piece of company information? Say you want to know the hours and location of a company you plan to do business with later today. Do you…

  • Ask a friend/spouse/coworker if they know?
  • Look them up in a paper phonebook?
  • Look them up in Google or online?
  • Go to their site and hunt until you find the information on the site?
  • Call phone information and ask for their phone number so you can talk to someone on the phone?
  • Drive by the location to look at a sign on the door?
  • Search for them on Twitter or Facebook, to see if the company is there and you can ask or see the info?
  • Send an email to them to find out?
  • Ask an intern/spouse/assistant or some other person to find out?

Different people will take different approaches, based on how they learn and gather information, and where they are at the time. If I’m driving, I might ask someone else to look it up for me, or I might Google a search at a red light. If I’m on Twitter, I might pop the name into search and see if the company is there, and take the lazy route of asking someone and waiting for the answer. If I want to see the company’s site, I might visit and poke around and eventually get to the info. But I want to be able to do any of these things, and come up with the answer fast… because I have a lot to do and this is kind of like “white noise” in my day – until I get the info I need, I can’t ignore it and so it’s on the mental task list until I can check it off.

110430Emarketer’s latest research offers reasons that people befriend or follow a company using social media. They say social media users are “interested in deeper engagement.” That seems to be somewhat true, but have we helped respondents identify what it is they TRULY need? Two of these categories are too vague (at least as represented in this simple chart.) Do they need a person from Whole Foods, Macy’s or Apple to address them? Or do they need a question answered, a complaint addressed, a suggestion for a feature or product acknowledged, some praise for an employee noted, a request considered, or some other, specific need answered, that may or may not involve “engaging?”

What requires unique answers vs. what could be answered in a FAQ or inventory call? Inquiring about known product availability is different than asking if the company even has a product that meets a particular need, or a service offering. Asking for hours of operation is different than engaging in a conversation about the best person to contact within the company to discuss a potential business deal, or an inquiry about a unique problem with a newly purchased product. Asking a Human Resources representative on Twitter about the most appropriate clothing choices for a new hire, is different than asking if there are job openings. One requires human engagement, the other can be answered by a machine. We don’t refuse to automate business processes inside the enterprise, or factory, or kitchen… wherever they make sense and are affordable. So why do we act as if some automation of information via a social platform is a crime against humanity?

As a user experience designer, I have seen that interactions inside a site or software system (or over a phone system) are also forms of engaging with your company and brand. The increasing popularity of making purchases online is a testament to this. You need to think of interactions and transactions as mechanical engaging, and you’ll see how important they are. People have good, bad and downright horrifying experiences, just like they do with your employees in person. An online experience with a site or ecommerce shopping cart can leave the same good or bad taste in your mouth, resulting in the same good or bad word of mouth sharing. If you have a crappy site, and are hoping your salespeople or customer support will make up for it (or vice versa), you won’t be fooling anyone, really. Customer care is a pervasive, underlying foundation or it’s not, and all aspects of your approach need to deliver on it. Social media is not a silo, your site is not a silo, your blog and community managers are not a silo, your managers, customer support handlers, marketing people, receptionists, retail floorwalkers, the lobby, restrooms and the parking lot are not independently going to carry the brand – it takes all of these pieces – human, tangible and intangible – working in tandem from the same value belief system, to satisfy prospects, buyers, partners and even former customers.

So instead of looking at the world of social media and thinking “Oh my gosh, how can I even go there? Our staff doesn’t have enough time as it is!” I am suggesting that you step back and ask yourself, what do people in your business ecosystem really NEED?

  • What do prospects need?
  • What do people appropriate for our products/services need, that don’t know about us yet?
  • What do existing customers need?
  • What do people with a return or complaint need?
  • What do potential partners need?
  • What do employees need?
  • What do our salespeople need to close deals/do their job?
  • What do company managers need?
  • What do investors/stakeholders need?
  • What do people we owe money to/do business with need?

Then look at your people, business processes and existing technological systems, and pinpoint where you can start to meet these needs. If you can honestly always answer “deeper engagement” for the myriad needs you will come up with, I’d be highly surprised.

We have got to separate true need of specific information (inventory question, process explanation, how to return something, what time a store closes, if something desired is in or out of stock, if a discount is available for bulk purchase, if sales or discounts exist) from ego gratification from need for positive acknowledgment (desire to contribute to brand growth or offer a suggestion) from need for issue acknowledgment (desire to be heard when customer has had a problem or complaint.)

All of us that do marketing consultation and act as social media advisors need to be careful tossing around terms like “deeper engagement.” What does that mean, anyway? I have deep engagement with my closest friends and family – not so much with Freshbooks, though I sure think very highly of them and recommend them often (for example.) It makes people feel good when a company rep or major brand responds to them, but why? Is it because they are perceived as being busy/important/popular and the name-dropping in our direction impresses others (and maybe delights us. It can be fun when someone you admire responds.) But is our ego drive to be acknowledged an unacknowledged driver behind the call for engagement with brands and companies on Twitter? Or do people need access to information, that may sometimes includes a person and sometimes an automated FAQ or inventory tool? What makes interacting with Sally Smith (a random person – like any of us) any different than interacting with Mark Parker (the CEO of Nike)? Do we value a brief interaction with Mark Parker, who we don’t know, more than with a beloved friend who lends us a word of encouragement, or a mate who declares undying love in public for all the world to see, or a boss that gives us an ‘atta boy’ in front of our peers?

If people aren’t accessing Twitter accounts for fast info now, is it because that type of interaction doesn’t much exist today, so there’s no precedent to believe they can do that? Or because they don’t want to? (The classic chicken and egg question.) I would much rather hit Twitter (where let’s face it, I am 75% of the time off and on) and ask a quick question and get the answer now (automatic response) or later (via a nice human) than dig through a company site full of information and FAQ’s or support questions. It might be the height of laziness for me, but it’s the art of providing convenience and engagement (even if automated!) for savvy businesses who have the foresight to see it now, because it WILL come eventually. Our processes for automating certain interactions are more clear inside the company than on these social platforms, I think. We haven’t built them yet, but we can and we should go further than the “social” in social media and include opportunities we have to meet and answer needs in a number of cool ways.

Maybe it’s just me, but…

  • I would greatly prefer to order some of my food and beverages directly via Twitter and then go pick them up (like Coffeegroundz in Houston wisely initiated early on – I was longing for this just the other day from Moe’s in Shawnee, KS)
  • I’d love to be able to sit on my rump in Twitter and ask an Amazon account about a book someone mentioned, and have the link to it sent back to me, instead of going to the site and searching
  • If I have an Apple Mac issue (I have multiple Macs and an iPod), I want to be able to hit a knowledge base with my question from Twitter. It may work or may not, but it seems easier than going and digging up the info at their site. It’s just one more hook, but for me, mentally massively more convenient.
  • Someday I want to ask for hairdresser (lawn care, dry cleaner, nail salon, doctor, air conditioner repair, etc. recommendations and receive a nice link back to a list of known folks reviewed near me (or the city I will be going to.) I don’t want a special, local Kansas City site – I want to ask the world at large, from where I hang out (my site, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  • I’d like to be able to tweet a preferred appointment time to my nail lady, doctor’s office, chiropractor, etc. and get an answer back – an automated return of “Yes, that time’s available, would you like to schedule” or “No, I’m sorry, it’s not” is no less valuable coming from a software system than it is a human being. Either way, I get the appointment – engagement and customer care happens with the practitioner I am going to see and the people who take my money at the door, in addition to the software system they set up to meet my needs.
  • If my internet goes out, or the electricity, I want to tweet an account and get a status update back.
  • I want to ping my gym and find out what classes are being taught at 5:30 pm (because I realize that’s when I can go.) Or I want to know when Thom or Martha are teaching, or some other schedule related question.

Ask the question OUT, get the answer back IN is the future of cloud computing. Right now, I have to do a lot of work, despite how much more convenient things are now than they were 5 years ago. I have to know the places to go, or ask people and find out, and then go to the sites, and then do a search, and maybe they have or don’t the info I am looking for in THEIR particular database. If they don’t I have to start over.

But these social platforms have opened a new door – they offer new horizons of people-powered comments, reviews, praise and complaints to work with. With links mentioned, people recommended or disputed, reports posted, analytics tracked – this is incredibly valuable to the humble person overworked, underpaid, and with the ambition to pack as much productivity into a day as they can.

Forrester, who many companies rely on to separate the good from the bad data and information, has recently added a bucket of “conversationalists” to their social media persona ladder. But… I think this needs more work. I’ve added a couple of notes in green:


This chart just doesn’t address people who are seeking information vs. the need to engage, in any of these areas. The RSS feed comment is mildly confusing – I assume they mean these collectors aggregate feeds into a feed reader or something, or maybe mix them, but not sure. “Inactives” may not appear to be doing anything, but we can’t know that – after all, they signed up for some reason… maybe they are self-educating or scouring for deals or seeking specific information.

Why aren’t we building databases based on social queries? Is it because we are so focused on people, and people who need people (LOL!) that we are totally overlooking an entire segment of socialization? Once I asked @WholeFoods if they carried Nutella – someone answered and said no, it does not meet their ingredient quality list. That answer could be popped into a database for a future automated query, so the next time a Nutella addict wants to know it could be answered automatically. The supplements questions alone (if anything like the quantity we got in the store) could result in a big time-savings for the human staffers.

Similar questions as an example: take Cost Plus World Market – do they have a location near me, do they carry Fat Tire Beer (at my location, or nearest?) Does LifeTime Fitness have a tennis center at a gym in Kansas City? (No, automated answer.) Will they ever have one? (Requires human answer with explanation.) Can I tell someone who will listen/respond at LifeTime, how much I wish they would bring Tennis to a KC gym? (Human answer with link to ideas site or direct forward to tennis program director, preferably on Twitter, or Facebook, or wherever I have initiated this conversation.) Do they have any recommendations for tennis in the Kansas City area then, given they are not meeting my need as an existing customer? (This is where the company could go the extra mile in their answer/recommendation, resulting in customer loyalty, user retention or positive WOM benefits.)

I am not saying the people running branded accounts on Twitter aren’t doing a world of good for their companies, customers and brands. I have no idea why, but one day someone mentioned to me she had a big problem with a seatbelt in her Ford. Not knowing how I could help, but having a passing acquaintance with Scott Monty, Ford’s very socially present PR person, I forwarded her issue on to him. He got the right people involved apparently, and a few days later she told me Ford had contacted her and was resolving the problem. Now, while I was glad this was the case, I don’t know why her efforts to reach them on her own had failed. These are the kinds of customer care issues all companies have to examine and correct where they see failures. If there were only automated systems, this would not have been possible, and I am not recommending we replace the people spearheading social media efforts at the groundbreaking companies that are here now, with automated systems. In fact, to know how to deal with people who request things and ask questions of you on Twitter, you need to BE an active Twitter user, so don’t even think about planning automated services without being immersed in the social culture, or you will likely pay for it in negativity.

I’m suggesting we (my company and others who think about technology and integration and business processes non-stop) help these Twittering employees and companies by coming up with new solutions. New ways of approaching the needs. New ways to scale and manage the requests. I hope that’s clear, if you read this far!

I leave you with two things. Tonight I asked the question “If you have recently interacted with a brand/company on Twitter, what was the nature of your interaction? Question/comment/issue?” and I got a lot of neat answers and opinions, which I have starred as favorites. I recommend browsing these comments for insights.

New friend @CariEllison gave me a link to a related article that’s interesting, so you might want to check it out also.

Want to discuss this? Tell me I’m full of smack? Need help with an integration plan or process? Let’s talk about it. I’m curious to know what other folks think of the idea of mixing automation (for utility, aid and response, not marketing – huge, huge difference) with people on social platforms.

  • Jesse Luna

    I don’t think that looking at certain accounts as a straight info or service provider is a bad thing. I think it’s a matter of expectation. If people expect an account to contact them, listen in, and respond during work hours at least, then that’s one thing. But people only expect data back on a tweet then I don’t see anything wrong with that. Expectation.

    I know of one account (engineering focused) that will DM you a datasheet if you tweet it a part number. That’s a pure service. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, if the flow works (it doesn’t all the way but that’s a different issue). Kogi BBQ tweets out locations as a courtesy ping, then hungry people run out to meet it. That’s just information and that’s fine.

    There’s still a ton of innovation that will occur on social networks like Twitter, and some of it will be fully automated.

  • Simon Kuo

    Excellent points Kristi. I think there is a tendency to forget people who simply seek information because it’s something we do all of the time. I also think “real-time” social media like Twitter still do a poor job of allowing people to retrieve information that has been provided in the past.

    One more point-I would probably create a category called “cataloguers” and put some of items that are in “collectors” and “critics” into it, including tagging, favoriting, & rating articles with stars.

    Thanks for the thought provoking thoughts in this post.

  • John McTigue

    I totally agree with your main theme. I think we (the people who use and promote social media) are guilty of oversimplifying it, perhaps because we are trying so hard to make a square peg fit into a round hole. For example, the huge emphasis on engagement and authority. Sometimes these are key factors in gaining or retaining loyal customers, sometimes not. As you say, sometimes just having the goods readily available is enough. Maybe if we less time riding the wave and more time studying its patterns, we might be better surfers.

  • Vincent Fry

    A smidge long. Fortunately, halftime came. Good stuff though.

  • Glenn Friesen | Customer Service Training

    Very insightful post, Kristi! I understand where you’re coming from per our conversation on Twitter much better!

    I have a personal, somewhat different way of finding specific pieces of company information that some folks find interesting. I let Google look for me. After discovering a relevant URL (whether a Twitter account or Corporate URL), I use the “site:” Google Search Operator and my search terms.

    - How I’d look for a company’s address.
    - How I’d look for a mention of a Twitter handle in another’s stream.
    - How I’d look for Hours of operation.

    Hope that helps someone!

    Hope to read more of your thoughts about automation and customer service on Twitter. Enjoyed reading into these topics. Thanks!

    Glenn Friesen

  • Shelly Kramer

    Like a great film, this is the kind of post that leaves you thinking about it long after you read it. Thanks for the great thoughts, Kristi – I love it when you let the rest of us dive into that brilliant brain of yours. I encounter many people who don’t consider user experience at all, never mind user desires, goals, etc., and who just design to suit their own needs and tastes. Those people who don’t figure out that customers will gravitate most quickly to the companies who solve their problems, anticipate their needs, efficiently and effectively dispatch information, etc., will be, in my opinion, left shaking their heads and wondering why the money isn’t rolling in. Thanks again for sharing these thoughts, my friend.

  • Cindy C.

    Excellent post, once again!! I don’t necessarily have trouble w/people “broadcasting”, if that’s what’s needed. But to only broadcast about how much you engage people, seems a little…paradoxical to me.

  • Mat Maynor

    Ok, so I’ve been thinking about your post for days. I totally agree with you, but here, now, in 2010 I still think it’s about engagement. Sure, some companies get it and have for a long time so they are beyond the engagement paradigm, but for most companies I still find that they are not really engaging their customers in social media. The pattern of developing a facebook fan page or twitter feed and calling that engagements is all to prevalent. Look at the abundance of b2c related companies that have the above mentioned out reaches and simply post ad copy in the status updates. There is no engagement, no conversation, and no relationship. It is simply another marketing/advertising channel they think they can take advantage of due to the friend or following status. So, as I said earlier I think that for many companies rethinking what engagement means is essential and for those of us involved in social media it is important to help them take their first real baby steps into solutions that meet their customer’s needs.