The Socialfication Imperative

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July 2014
by Christopher Surdak

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Now that social media sites are allowing all of us to form and participate in digital tribes—groups numbering from a few dozen to a few million people who share some sort of social interest with us and with whom we seek deeper engagement—“socialfication” is a necessary business strategy.

Fundamentally, socialfication is about the process of belonging to one or more of these tribes. Such belonging implies personalization because the tribe gets to know me, know my preferences, know my hopes and dreams, and anything else that I post to the group online.

Socialfication is also about participation, as social media is by its nature a two-way street. It facilitates, and tribes therefore expect, participation as part of an implied social contract. It’s bad form to be part of a tribe and not contribute to it.

Personalization and participation define the third characteristics of socialfication: engagement. By baring our souls to a given digital tribe and sharing our thoughts with this larger group, we develop a level of engagement with these people that helps us feel validated. The power of this validation should not be underestimated; it may be the key differentiator between behavior via social media and other online behavior.

In a socialfied world, the customer becomes the focus in the vendor-customer relationship. Through socialfication, vendors work to develop a deeper understanding of their customers and then target their marketing messages so that their customers are motivated to want their products or services in a very personal way. This approach creates customer “pull,” rather than vendor “push,” and leads to a much more satisfying experience for the customer. Additionally, it leads to greater profitability for the vendor, as well as to a stronger bond between the parties.

This substantial change in the relationship between companies and their customers entails managing vast amounts of customer data. It won’t be enough to email customers coupons on their birthdays; companies will have to monitor each customer in real time, looking for opportunities to engage the customer in an intimate way.

It also entails a new economy by which businesses and customers interact. Today, a person who writes a glowing review of a product on a Facebook page may do so simply because of a good experience with the product. Increasingly, that person will expect, and receive, some sort of compensation for the positive review. Companies that embrace this new method of advertising may find that the small payments made in return for positive spin in a digital tribe produce vastly greater results than those achieved through traditional advertising.

Tracking Progress: The Maturity Model

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In the 1990s, Carnegie Mellon University developed a maturity model that allowed organizations to determine the maturity of their internal software development processes. The maturity model below should help you determine how far along your socialfication processes are and what remains to be done. As you’ll see, it runs on a scale from 0 to 5; each level builds upon the previous one, and the primary driver is the depth of social engagement achieved with each customer.

At Level 0, there are anonymous transactions, where my business receives no information regarding a customer’s preferences or behaviors. As a result, there is no opportunity to engage with customers. They and I pass like ships in the night. We’ve transacted business, but I haven’t learned anything about them.

At Level 1, I am able to track individual customer behavior and preferences by monitoring use of frequent buyer cards and credit cards or because a customer has “liked” and/or “friended” me on my social media sites, occasionally posting thoughts. Since I can attribute those interactions to a given customer, I can begin to model preferences and personalize my messaging.

If your company isn’t at least at Level 1 socialfication by now, you’re probably wondering, What is this whole Facebook thing, anyway?

At Level 2, I can start to react to customer needs. This implies that I’m monitoring my own site and others as I look for comments regarding my company. Perhaps your company’s Website invites customer interaction with online blogs or other social media postings. Perhaps you access message streams from sites such as Facebook and Twitter, looking for comments regarding your company, products, or services.

When you receive some sort of notice of a comment that refers to you, you can then act on that message, as you deem appropriate. Whether the comments are good or bad, you are reacting to them once they appear.

If your company isn’t at least at Level 2 socialfication by now, you might be in deep trouble, because it means that entire conversations are going on among your customers of which you are completely unaware. Hundreds or thousands of people outside your company are driving your brand perception without your guidance, and you are doing nothing to shape this message.

Such commentary could be terribly damaging to your company’s image or might be a source of great product innovation. Either way, if you are not plugged into these platforms you cannot respond to these customers or participate in these discussions. By 2013, Level 2 socialfication effectively had become social media life support. Hopefully you’re at least at this level.

At Level 3, companies begin to proactively engage their customers. By following customers’ social media interactions, companies develop an understanding of customer preferences and opinions and, as a result, can start to shape those preferences and opinions through targeted marketing messages.

Proactive socialfication means that you are blending the social media data you obtain with your operational data and can begin engaging customers as they begin each new experience with your company. If you have a customer who is particularly picky and also particularly verbose on social media, you can identify that person and take steps to improve the customer experience before another negative post appears.

Level 3 socialfication can be a powerful mechanism for managing your corporate image in the world.

At Level 4, companies understand their customers well enough to start being predictive about how they engage. For example, an airline might note that a customer told a relative on Facebook about coming to visit. Based on that post, the airline might proactively send that customer a discounted fare offer, if the customer books the flight now. Here, the company isn’t just preventing a negative sentiment by a customer. Instead, the airline is proactively creating a positive sentiment by predicting and meeting a future customer need.

At Level 4, customer engagement starts to become customer intimacy that can generate significant brand loyalty and quantifiable improvements in profitability.

Finally, at Level 5, the relationship between a company and its customers becomes productive. By this I mean that the company actually engages the customer in productive work, making the customer a virtual employee who is compensated by them for a work product. The airline mentioned above might actually pay a customer to write a travel log of the trip that was facilitated by the airline.

With this level of engagement, the company has created a symbiotic relationship with its customer and begins to foster deep brand loyalty.

An additional example should reinforce this idea. Given its popularity, you’re likely a member of LinkedIn, the business-oriented social media site where professionals can interact with one another based upon their experiences, interests, and business needs. This wildly successful site had achieved at least socialfication Level 4 as of early 2013. Let’s look at how a user might interact with LinkedIn at each of the six levels of socialfication.

Tracking Progess: The LinkedIn Example

At Level 0, we might simply browse LinkedIn’s site. We have not engaged with the site or any of its other users; we’re there merely to perform some transaction. Perhaps we are looking for other people in our home location with similar experience to ask some business question.

LinkedIn allows this sort of anonymous transaction to occur, at least with those user profiles that are made public. So, if we ran such a search, we’d get at least some results, and our transaction would be completed.

At Level 1, we’d actually have an account on LinkedIn, but would not have provided any background information in our profile. Through the account, LinkedIn can track our activities on the site and start to learn a bit more about us. As I navigate through the site, perform searches, and use the other functions provided by LinkedIn, the site is able to learn what I am looking for and what I may be looking for. It can then push appropriate content to me, leading to a one-way communication path.

At Level 2, I have completed my profile. By analyzing it, LinkedIn knows where I worked, where I went to school, where I live, and so on. It would then use this knowledge to start to push content to me that I might find relevant. Users of LinkedIn will recognize this level of engagement, as LinkedIn starts to recommend other professionals with whom you might want to connect, based on your profile.

At Level 3, LinkedIn starts to look for opportunities to proactively socialize with me. Based on my profile and the connections that I have established, the site will recommend other people with whom I might connect (friends of friends, and so on), as well as other communities that I might be interested in joining, based on my interests. This engagement increases the value that I derive from the site, as LinkedIn starts making connections for me that I might never have made on my own.

At Level 4, LinkedIn uses its increasingly sophisticated model of me to recommend potential connections that are completely outside my existing network of business associates. This s profiling intelligence looks at my interests, sees those communities that I’ve engaged with, and may also tie into other data sources, such as what books I’ve bought on Amazon.com or what companies I’ve researched on Google.

Aggregating all this information allows LinkedIn to develop a much more sophisticated model of who I am, what I like, and what I might value, with a view toward driving this information to me in a predictive manner. Some features of LinkedIn have approached this level of socialfication, and I predict that the site will more fully adopt this level as it works toward being a Level 5 site.

For another example of Level 4 socialfication, we can look at how LinkedIn serves its other customers—retailers such as Amazon.com. I have noticed that LinkedIn frequently recommends books for me to read based on my interests and those of my connections. If I go ahead and make a purchase from Amazon based on a recommendation from LinkedIn, LinkedIn gets a referral payment.

This is an example of a predictive, or even a Level 5 productive, relationship created by LinkedIn for its users.

What might LinkedIn look like when it achieves Level 5 socialfication? Level 5 indicates a mutually beneficial, productive relationship between the site and the user. Since one of the productive outcomes for users of LinkedIn may be making a job change, I foresee LinkedIn identifying people who have made career changes through their interaction with the site, and paying them to write and publish their stories of how LinkedIn facilitated their changes.

The user would receive a payment for the story and LinkedIn would receive kudos to share with the rest of its user community. There are many more examples of how this model could be expanded, but this is the general idea of Level 5 socialfication, and a good model to keep in mind as we approach the time when socialfication becomes the chief determinant of customer loyalty and therefore of revenue generation and profitability. I expect that to happen by 2020.


Christopher Surdak is a recognized expert in collaboration and content management, information security, regulatory compliance, and Cloud computing, with more than 20 years of experience as a technology consultant. This article is derived from his new book, Data Crush: How the Information Tidal Wave Is Driving New Business Opportunities. © 2014 Christopher Surdak. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of the American Management Association. To learn more: amacombooks.org.

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