Brand Social Outreach and Customer Expectations

Most Time Spent on Social sites

A little over two years ago, I wrote what has become by far one of the most read posts at this site: why customer service in social is not fair.

In it I observed that organizations with broken systems have been learning an important lesson — whether they have outposts in social networks or not, customers will take their issues online.

Customer service is good brand management in that it allows a company to close the gap between the promises it makes and those it keeps in a public forum. In turn, this earns a business and its brands good reputation.

A solid reputation as a fair business provides a good baseline to do more interesting things online. It buys interest where there would be skepticism, or worse, a cynical outlook. It also positions the organization to benefit the most from social interactions.

Fairness builds credibility, the main ingredient in trust. The consistency of fair gives the business a license to impress proactively. On the inside, fair frees the organization from the constant hair on fire situations, so it can invest that energy back into growing the business.

However, fair doesn't mean ignoring issues or covering up for them. Retaliating for negative reviews is not the way to go in the same way that rewarding only the digital squeaky wheels will set a precedent — corporate lawyers agree on this one, ask them.

The whole Web is a big customer conversation. Brands earn attention by using outposts to grow commerce and transform the transactional nature of buying into repeat business. It's a preferable option to fighting to keep transactions with buyers from turning sour.

Enter data

A survey conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates for NetBase in December 2012# found that:

  • while 32% of people have no idea companies are listening online, they expect companieas to take the social voice seriously… as long as it's not perceived as eavesdropping
  • 42% expect companies to respond to positive comments in social, yet 64% want companies to respond to social comments only when spoken to
  • 48% say companies should listen to improve products and nearly 58% want companies to respond to complaints

In other words, people hold companies to super human standards when they hold themselves to all too human ones. This fine line is often quite difficult to navigate for inexperienced communicators and regulated brands and businesses.

The gap between what people say and what they do can be puzzling. Armed with data, companies are now starting to differentiate the support they provide in the same way they have been running marketing programs — by segmenting users.

It will be interesting to see where we go from here. Is there a case for delivering brilliant service regardless of the kind of customer/buyer? Trendwatching indicates there may be one#. As the site reports:

  • 85% of global consumers (a term I would prefer not using) believe that companies collect too much data already [ref: Adobe, June 2013]
  • 86% of US internet users have attempted to remove or mask their online activities, despite only 37% believing it is possible to be completely anonymous online [ref: Pew Research Center, September 2013]
  • 93% of email users believe that users should be able to opt-out if they don't want the content of their emails to be scanned in order to target ads [ref: GfK & Microsoft, November 2013]

With data, organizations are able to benefit from recommendations, cross-selling opportunities, personalization services, enhanced ad revenue and more. Trendwatching's "no data" is more likely to be a form of inconspicuous data use.

How Target knows what you want before you do

One way to appeal to buyers and customers is by using data to predict (and manipulate) habits. In 1984, Alan Andreasen, a visiting professor at UCLA, published a research paper# that set out to answer a basic question:

Why do some people suddenly change their shopping routines?

As Charles Duhigg documented in The Power of Habit, Andreasen discovered something modern marketers have come to rely on: People's buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. Getting married, buying a new house, divorcing, all qualify as major life events.

By far the biggest life event for most people, though, is when they have a baby. This event causes both the greatest disruption and makes its actors the most vulnerable to marketing messages. New parents, therefore, are the most flexible when it comes to habits.

Which is why Andrew Pole, a data expert working at Target, found a way to mine the guest (a customer in the company's vocabulary) data collected by the company over a decade, and link it to each shopper's profile as identified by a unique Guest ID number.

As illustrated in this (recreated) image from a presentation Pope gave at a retail conference and captured in the book, the number contains data about any purchases made through a Target-issued credit card, a frequent-buyer card, any home mailed coupon that is redeemed for a purchase, from surveys, mail in refunds, customer help lines, an opened email from Target, or a visit at

The data itself is not enough. To make sense of all this data, still requires a statistician. A portrait of a guest purchasing intent emerges from linking the information to each other. The more they know about you, the better they can guess your buying patterns.

When you look at this deck about Target brand management# during the 2007-2008 recession, you'll probably be able to infer more information about how the company sees the world on the inside.

How do you target people without creeping them out?

What do you do when you know information you're not supposed to know? Like in Pole's case, knowing which female shoppers were probably pregnant with a child is not information one would expect to be known.

Target has developed the ability to customize the ad booklet your receive in the mail based upon your past purchases. They do it for grocery products all the time.

The solution was quite simple. Mix and match the ads in such a way that the baby product coupons would not be obvious: for example, putting a coupon for wine glasses next to one for infant clothes. That way, it made it look like all the products were chosen randomly. 

They found that as long as the person doesn't think she's been spied on, she'll use the coupons. The method is to sandwich the diaper coupons between non-pregnancy products. That way the ad seems anonymous, familiar, and comfortable. 


Will anyone think a company is not collecting data when it (apparently) is not using it?

My prediction: driven by situational personal thresholds, societal/cultural signals, and legal and regulatory environments, brand outreach in social or through other channels will continue to be a moving target in the next two years.



Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.