Fortune 500 Series: DirecTV strengthens customer channel with social media

While most people know Comcast as the digital darling, its social media presence is no longer a differentiator as companies like DirecTV grow their programs and put stronger emphasis on customer service.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Most social media strategies are created by marketing departments and then grow to touch other internal groups, such as customer service, product development, and so on. However one large company, DirecTV, created a significant social media presence within its customer care organization, the result of which is stronger customer connection. While most people know Comcast as the digital darling, its social media presence is no longer a differentiator as companies like DirecTV grow their programs and put stronger emphasis on customer service. I've spoken with Charles E. Miller, director of inbound email operations and social media strategy for DirecTV about his company's program and how this program will continue to grow moving forward.

Q. [Jennifer] How is DIRECTV using social media? How is your strategy defined?

A. [Charles]We primarily use social media to listen to our customers.  Our strategy is to listen and act on issues, then share what we learn with the organization as a whole so we can work together to adapt the business to synch up with our customers' ideal view of a TV service.

Q. What tactics are you using?

A. Our tactics run across various contact points both external and internal.  Externally we collaborate with online customer-run communities to listen and refine our receiver software. We also created a peer-to-peer customer community to share set-up tips they have learned on their own and their experience with our more advanced features. Twitter and Facebook are both sites where our customers are actively sharing - which is common for entertainment brands. Our customers engage with us via @DIRECTV and with each other and our Facebook Fan interactions continue to grow -- expect more from us this year.  Internally, we use social media tools within our contact centers to facilitate communications within teams as just one example.

Q. How are you measuring the success of this program?

A. Generally we have the ability to scale and scope the feedback we receive and measure the impact over time. Post reads, author engagement, subject proliferation and sentiment are all important to understanding where you are making a difference and where to improve.

Next: What about Comcast? -->

Q. Comcast has become a bit of a social media darling. Does that make things harder or easier for you as a competitor?

A. Neither, really, we have different strategies. Frank and his team have done a great job of bringing this avenue to light, and his story has an attractive narrative hook - can the largest U.S. TV provider, who annually ranks among the lowest in customer satisfaction polls, stem the tide of video subscriber losses. Their "sleeping installer on the sofa" was their impetus for action.  At DIRECTV our efforts began years ago and were not driven by a crisis. We saw early on that social media is just a really good way to get certain information to customers quickly and efficiently, and learn what others share about DIRECTV with their peers.

Q. When you began defining/shaping your strategy, did you use internal teams or outside agencies and consultants?

A. We grew efforts internally for years to meet specific business objectives. As social media grew and we considered broader tactics, we contracted an outside agency to conduct a discovery to see if there were any untapped opportunities. Today, various vendors support specific tactics or tasks, such as the peer-to-peer social networking platform and moderation provided by OutStart, Inc., but we are self-directed across many disciplines.  As our efforts have grown, we have expanded roles in key areas to support our tactics then partner internally to coordinate and create compelling engagements.

Q. How do you work cross-functionally with other teams within DIRECTV?

A. While information we discover is shared broadly with every area internally, our core team have dotted lines into Marketing, Research, Engineering, Customer Service and PR.  Each informs the other and our efforts are most successful when each is fully engaged.

Next: Brand impact of social media -->

Q. Do you feel that your social media efforts are helping to strengthen DIRECTV's brand both externally and internally? Why?

A. Yes on both counts. What we learn from customers online allows us to be resilient and in synch with what they want from a TV provider. Their implicit feedback thereby informs and strengthens our internal and external communications. It's a dynamic push-pull that is much faster and more direct than other forms of feedback.

Q. How long has the DIRECTV social media program been in place?

A. DIRECTV has been involved with online customer outreach since the late 90's before social media was a term. We monitored comments and contacted customers to intervene on their behalf and solve their service questions.  Having been in the Internet industry since the very beginning, I knew where customers were beginning to gather to share there experiences online. But the birth of our current social media connections as we know them began when we launched our Tech Forums in the fall of 2005 to support our new DVRs.  We identify, recruit and manage a group of technically savvy customers we call "TechKnow Guides" with Outstart's help.  These customers know our service well and they answer many questions in the community each night. Four years after we launched the Technical Help Forums, we have many of the same core of knowledgeable customers we recruited from the beginning and their trusted relationships have helped us connect with others online. As social media touch points have grown over time, we have adapted and followed where our customers gather.

Q. It's been a tough market all around last year. Do you feel that social media has helped DIRECTV through in terms of helping people chose business with your company?

A. Right now, people seek brands they can count on. We positioned ourselves well before this tough market in many ways, including social media, to not only be strong, but to drive innovation to standout. We focus intently on providing a service that adds value everyday and in unique ways.

Q. Are there any parts of the business that have surprisingly grown through social media?

A. The most obvious is in our engineering group where we have been integrated with online customers the longest. The results have been dramatic.  We have seen improvements in our receiver feature sets and quality and at the same time built relationships with some of our most passionate/loyal customers. Many participate in testing out early versions of our receiver software, sometimes as often as weekly.

Q. Please provide one example of an executed social media strategy that has gone right.

A. The launch of our free DIRECTV iPhone App for mobile DVR Scheduling is the most visible example and we employed every aspect of social media we are engaged in. Hours before its placement in the iTunes App store, we notified customer communities we work with on a regular basis, Twitter users we have interacted with in the past with a passion for iPhone Apps, and posted a sneak peek video demo on DIRECTV's Facebook Fan page and YouTube. Even the App itself is a product of our social media outreach. One of the developers for the iPhone App was previously a top blogger on DIRECTV before we hired him. The results surpassed our estimates.  Within three days, customers had downloaded 100k copies of our free DIRECTV iPhone App, 200K within a week and nearly half a million in the first 30 days. Our customers love it, Apple's staff loved our launch method and traditional media outlets like the New York Times and Forbes called it a "must-have" app.

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