Brian Solis: What the C-suite can learn from connected consumers

OK. I’ll admit it. I have a Tiger Beat crush on Brian Solis. That’s because Solis is one of the smartest people around when it comes to social media and its power to reshape our world.

Solis has been in technology public relations since 1991. He began working with message boards, communities and early blogs in the 90s and started his own firm, FutureWorks in 1999. In March 2011,  he joined Altimeter Group, a research-based advisory firm that says it offers “pragmatic strategies to help companies thrive with disruptive technologies.”

You can pop in on Solis blog, which includes a series discussing the concepts in his new book, The End of Business as Usual, or  catch his insightful TV series, Revolution, on YouTube.

Solis has written perhaps the best book on online marketing for beginners, Engage: The Complete Guide for Brands and Businesses to Build, Cultivate, and Measure Success in the New Web.  The End of Business as Usual is targeted toward emerging leaders, those change agents who want to revitalize the culture of business around customer experience.

The End of Business discusses traditional consumers, digital consumers and connected consumers, those experiential curators who feel it is their work to share their experiences. I’d say I’m one of them.

Solis has 109,000 followers on Twitter and was among the first to announce Google+ brand pages. Check out the “Ripples” to below see how influencers shared his initial blog post, which in a way embodies his view of how the connected consumer influences others.

I talked with Solis about how his work has evolved from the marketing department to the C-Suite [CEO level] and what the rise of the “connected consumer” could mean to the future of business.

Q: How do you see the principles outlined in The End of Business as Usual spinning forward in the future?

A. From years of working with my own agency, I realized that if I kept working with marketers and kept innovation within the marketing department I was never going to make an impact within the business.  I had aspirations of reaching the C-suite to say “Look at what is taking place here.  If you could lead the entire organization in this direction, you would not have to spend so much time reacting to markets but you could lead them.”

This was after the second revision of Engage, which was my homage and farewell to all of my private resources going to the marketing department and the customer service dept.

Then I started writing “The End of Business as Usual’ and joined Altimeter so I could get right into the C-suite.

Q. What’s the thrust of the book?

A. The idea is to take the principles of everything that we are learning from social media — authenticity, transparency, engagement, peer-to-peer interaction — and develop organizational empathy. This the ability to take insights away from customer activity and behavior and not just measure sentiment, but instead feel empathy, and inform business direction in a way that would be actually meaningful and relevant.

That was the idea.

After spending time with my agency over 13 years, I realized was getting sucked into the technology aspects of it. And I realized that with every new technology and  every new network I was applying the same types of principles.

In the end, I realized that these principles are less about the technology and more about the sociology. I realized that what was taking place was a new kind of customer emerging,

It is clear that this connected consumer shares real world experience. This is actually an important  inflection point for me personally.

I didn’t even realize that I was that new type of customer.

Q. What are the three types of customers?

The book breaks customers into three segments.

There’s the traditional customer. They read newspapers and magazines, watch television and go to real world events.

Then there is the digital or online consumer, This is is the person who begins all their searches on Google. They are very comfortable shopping from CraigsList . They are fine with eBay and fine with getting information from websites.

Finally, there is this idea of the connected consumer. This is what the first half of my new book really centers on.

And, no, connected consumers are not just millennials. And, no, they are not just the young person with a cell phone. The connected consumer is a person who realizes the benefits of connecting to other people like themselves. Over time, I saw that how the connected consumer finds and shares information, how they make decisions, is fundamentally different from the other two categories of consumers. Very little is shared in terms of similarities among the three.

So, it’s not because of social media. It’s not because of Facebook and Twitter.  It’s because the connected consumer has created an egosystem.

The egosystem is the result of interacting in these networks. Connected consumers have created their own egosystems where they’re creating this online experience based on who they are, what they know and what they value.

The fuel to egosystems — the thing that keeps them vibrant — is shared  experience.  What this means, what’s really profound, what really struck me is that if I am planning travel or have another decision to make, as a connected consumer I am not going to go to Google first.

I am going to go to my social networks and see what people are saying. I am going to read social review sites and see what people are experiencing and see if I can make a better decision that way.

There’s an example in the book of researching an airline. If I were the connected consumer, I am going to search it in Twitter and Facebook.

In this case as an experiment, I took the search results feeds from Twitter and Facebook, and put it into Wordle, which creates a word cloud of the most commonly used terms. The word cloud that came back based on these shared experiences was incredible. It was full of swear words. It was pretty unbelievable.

So then I did a funny thing. I went to the website and set the company’s website URL into Wordle to see the word cloud and I compared the two side by side.  What I saw was this: Here is what the company says about themselves. And here is what the connected consumer is experiencing.  The disconnect between the two is the future of business.

Q. But what about sample error, maybe the folks who complain are unusual or not representative of the customer experience?

A. I love that question!

There’s a multiple that was used before the Internet. If somebody hates an experience bad enough that they write a complaint letter they represent an X multiple of people who feel the same thing but just don’t write the letter.

With social networks, if I am asking the question [about sample error] I might not be able to get to the right answer. The right answer is not about what the customer  represents and whether or not they are the mass customer experience. Instead the question is about how important they are to the business based on who they are connected to. To the extent these businesses touch people that is what is important.

The digital native and the traditional native are actually decreasing in number and the connected consumer is increasing in number. So the connected consumer touches more people, and the more people that they touch become people who touch even more people. I call this the concept of the audience of audiences with audiences.

Solis uses this photo by Mollie Sterling of her class at the Missouri School of Journalism to illustrate the audience of audiences with audiences.

 

But what’s important to takeaway is that I’m not saying that we have to disengage with the traditional and the online consumers. They are important.  I am saying that we have to engage with different kinds of consumers differently. We have to augment our approach.

So for example, ATT has to recognize that unhappy customers are shaping people’s impressions. They might not be so willing to go in with the ATT iPhone next year. Maybe they will consider Verizon and Sprint because they want a better experience.

It forces companies to be a little bit more transparent, a little bit more honest to maybe say things like, “We hear you,” and “We are working on it, because we want you to enjoy the experience. “

Saying, “What problem? What are you talking about?” “We are the number one rated network” doesn’t help the company.  Empathy, however, does help the company. And so does creating a culture within the organization that can encourage empathy and employee engagement and honesty and then innovation based on that honesty, once the customer sees the company has kept its word.

All of these principles tend to humanize a business and the connected consumer is not the only who is going to benefit from that, everyone is going to benefit from that.

Q. What’s to stop an organization from pasting over the impression that it is changing when it is not.

A. Now that I am on the business side of things, working in the C-suite, I spend a lot of time in change management. I help the organization rethink its approach to the culture, the philosophy, down to the mission and the vision. And I ask how do we bring teams together that will lead change because it is really bigger than any one person.

This is where the Occupy movement took off.

It’s not about Facebook and Twitter getting credit for bringing about revolutions, the Egyptian revolution, the Libyan revolution and now the Occupy Wall St.  movement. Really these networks are one of many catalysts for change. They are just tools.

At the heart of change is any number of  things: repression, oppression, depression. The zest for change — that’s at the heart of the revolution.

It’s that change is facilitated much more quickly and easily because of social networks. People will share and get together and do something about it.

At any moment. the Occupy movement could fall in anyone’s lap. Whether change takes ten years or whether it takes five years doesn’t matter.  Because what has to happen is change, or at least a semblance of change, because change is what people want.

People will vote with their dollars and with their decisions. That’s why I call it Digital Darwinism because anybody who is going to wait it out is going to fall victim to natural selection.

Q. Change takes time ….

A. It is sand through an hour glass.  It is a matter of timing. This is why I believe we are at a crossroads.

This book is not for the social media champion, that person within the organization who is going to champion Facebook and Twitter internally. They will lead some great campaigns. But this book is not for them.

This book is for the change agent. This book is for the person willing to rile things up. It gives them fuel to do so, teaches them how to align the right people in the organization and how to make the case, how to bring about change because it is the right thing to do.

The last half of the book is about and for the change agent.

Q. What specific advice do you have for these leaders, these change agents.

A. You are at a crossroads.

You are on one of two kinds of people. First, you are really interested in new media and how it impacts them. Then, you are a person who really wants to bring about change.

These leaders have the  strength, the passion and the tenacity to make it happen.

This is where you see the new Brian Solis emerging.

I spent many years inside organizations and I was not satisfied seeing really important evolutions and revolutions taking place in the business world or in real life and having these insights and recognitions stuck in the silo of marketing, marketing communications and public relations and, to a lesser extent, customer service.

I just said, “Enough! You don’t need me to tell you social media is important.”

For those who want to keep growing and keep going on the path and see this through, then let’s bring about real change in the organization.  Here’s your book.

If not you can stop with Engage, which is still the best book out there to help people do online marketing the right way.

Q: What does all this mean for the local business world in neighborhoods?

This is an easier story to tell. In your neighborhood you will find three different type of people to come to your restaurant.

One is the traditional – the word of mouth. Then you will have the digital customer. They will find you from a Google search in the neighborhood.

Then you will have the connected consumer and they will ask their friends in FourSquare or their geolocal network Yelp . They will rely on their social network to tell them where to go.

What happens next? Someone goes to your restaurant and they have a horrible experience. Then the online customer will find some traditional review sites and say: “Don’t go there.”

They you get the connected consumer – they will leave something on Yelp, they will blog about it, they might even say something on YouTube.

Whatever the networks they use, the connected consumer will leave eggs there because that’s what they do.

They feel almost like an experiential curator. They feel it is important and up to them to make sure that their social graf understands their experience. This is true for good experiences as well.

All these customers are important to your business and you cannot reach them all one way.

So the question is how are you reaching and engaging the connected segment.  In an example in the book, I talk about a chocolate shop that decided to take out print ads.

Oddly enough the print ad brought in 1 person and it cost $200. Foursquare brought in 24 customers in the first week.

The traditional and digital customer will find us the way they have always found us. But if we are trying to grow our business, we need to reach people where they are.

To be honest with you, Facebook is the homepage for a local busienss social web. Now it’s the place for the traditional and the digital customer. You can design Facebook to be your website.

That why I don’t drink the kool aid anymore. I get the why. Now show me the how.

 

 

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