With the arrival of social-media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, SMEs can respond immediately to customer needs.
Frowned upon by many companies, social-networking sites have been negatively dubbed by some as ‘social notworking’, with a fear that employees might be wasting too much time indulging in the practice of ‘throwing sheep’ at their friends or perhaps ‘tweeting’ to all and sundry about what they had for lunch.
While some large corporates, including Apple at one point, have banned Facebook access to their employees, many small to medium-sized enterprises are leveraging innovation and product development through the powerful and immediate feedback and interaction of crowd sourcing on the internet.
One such company is FBD Insurance, which had been doing business the same way for the past 40 years and prides itself on being an approachable firm with local branches that people feel they can drop into at any time for a chat.
Brendan Hughes, e-commerce manager for FBD, says that while the company wanted to retain its amicable customer interactions in office bases around the country, it also decided to review its online strategy because at the time, two years ago, it merely had a brochure website where you could get a quote but couldn’t buy online.
As part of this review, Hughes looked into social media as a means of reaching existing and potential customers, and FBD soon found its way onto micro-blogging site, Twitter.
“We looked at how we could replicate the existing channels, both by phone or online; FBD’s DNA is in dealing direct and we know our customers very well.
“At first the internet didn’t feel like a natural extension of being able to come in and have a chat, but once we reached out through Twitter, Skype and networking site IGO People, we were able to replicate that idea of getting to know people informally and building a rapport.
“With channels such as Twitter, you can talk directly to a customer or an interested party. You can identify issues they may have and deal with them: you can be more responsive,” explains Hughes.
For those who have never heard of Twitter, this micro-blogging site essentially allows the user to send short messages, compromising 140 characters or less, to a group of their followers – it can be a declaration of status or an opportunity to engage.
While it might seem very high tech, it is beginning to revolutionise the concept of harvesting crowd wisdom as more and more firms, including Dell and Amazon, come on board to get in touch directly with their customer base.
Even traditional, established brands such as Barry’s Tea have tapped into crowd wisdom by establishing a Facebook presence: “We realised that consumers want to interact with brands, it’s no longer enough to simply talk at them. Facebook makes it much easier to have a conversation and get them involved with the brand and make it their own, on their terms,” says Camille O’Flanagan, marketing director for Barry’s Tea.
“It also allows us to get our messaging out there in a controlled and interesting way, bring it to life and create an emotional link.
“We’re in a space where people are active every day, making it easier to engage. Also, it’s great to get feedback and suggestions on what activity we are carrying out, which helps us to shape our plans going forward,” says O’Flanagan. She adds that while, to date, Barry’s Tea hasn’t done a lot of crowd sourcing from the Facebook page, it does get great feedback from consumers through the page all the time.
“One of our marketing initiatives for later this year came about as the result of a comment that was posted on Facebook about Barry’s Tea. It’s an exciting one, but we can’t give away anything more than that at the moment!” she says.
An old pro to social media at this stage is Murphy’s Ice Cream, a small business with premises in Killarney and Dingle.
Kieran Murphy, director of Murphy’s Ice Cream, says: “Many of our ideas for new products and flavours have come from customers. We have always felt it’s imperative to keep talking to customers, so we can try to give them what they want.
“Our blog – Ice Cream Ireland – is another means of feedback. We’re also exploring other digital avenues at the moment, including Twitter,” he adds.
While many businesses may feel that vast amounts of money must be spent on market research in order to innovate and develop new products or services, Murphy agrees that social media brings the power of customer feedback to your doorstep.
“The amazing power of something like a blog becomes really apparent when you think about what it would have taken to reach such an audience a mere decade or so ago,” he affirms.
Why engage in crowdsourcing?
- Feedback is often the first step to new product development
- Using social tools such as blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn can allow people to build a rapport with your brand
- You can identify issues through crowd wisdom and be proactive rather than reactive.
Case study: Tweet Success
It is one thing to take on board the suggestions from customers through blogs and other forms of social media, but when one suggestion leads to a whole new product line this is where crowd wisdom really begins to shine.
Walter Higgins, founder of small technology firm Sxoop, says that the new product offering TwitterMosaic is ‘a perfect case-study’ of social media in action.
“It sprang from a request by someone on Twitter to create a once-off mosaic image of all of the attendees at charity event DubTwestival.
“Rather than creating a once-off image, I thought it would be cool if anyone could create a mosaic of the followers/friends and post it on their blog. A few days later, the first iteration of TwitterMosaic was born.
“Someone on Twitter suggested putting the mosaic on a T-shirt. Two days later, I was selling TwitterMosaic T-shirts and mugs from my website.”
Even from the beginning, social media was the ideal platform for a small company with little or no budget for marketing, says Higgins: “We ‘launched’ our first product, Pixenate, in a forum post on photo site Flickr.com because that’s where people who share their photos hang out.
“It grew in popularity from there, thanks to blog posts and online and offline publications.”
He explains that the challenge for firms using social media is to make themselves heard above the crowd.
“Social media has become crowded and it’s increasingly difficult for one single small company or individual to be heard. We’re fortunate that we have informal online networks like The Tuesday Push to help boost the signal from Irish web start-ups.
“I wish I could say TwitterMosaic was my idea, but I just happened to be listening to the right people at the right time,” says Higgins.
By Marie Boran
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