Here they come... Organic, Scheming, and Controlled Customers, are you ready to roll with them? Guest Post

The discussion around the social customer has been going on for several years now and, I think, we've reached a point where, minimally, we can all agree that there is a social customer - a kind of customer who didn't exist (in terms of how they communicate) a decade (or even sooner) ago.  But what we haven't really looked at, and this goes to the heart of the discussion around customer engagement is what kinds of social customers are there.
Written by Paul Greenberg on

The discussion around the social customer has been going on for several years now and, I think, we've reached a point where, minimally, we can all agree that there is a social customer - a kind of customer who didn't exist (in terms of how they communicate) a decade (or even sooner) ago.  But what we haven't really looked at, and this goes to the heart of the discussion around customer engagement is what kinds of social customers are there.  We all know that customers aren't created equal - and don't operate in the same way nor do they operate in any way, similar or not, for the same reasons.  Social customers in particular have different purposes and reasons to be involved with companies.

Well, I'm lucky. I've known this guy for quite a while, who is both a friend and, luckily for all of us, a significant industry thinker. His name? Glad you asked.  Mark Walton-Hayfield.  For your formal intro, Mark is the current Principal Business Strategist for Social Business at CSC and a damned good one at that. He has the strength of technology knowledge tied to deep strategic acumen, making him someone well qualified to be the social business evangelist that CSC has and one who is respected throughout the industry.

He's also a really good human being.

So....I'm going to let him carry the discussion around the social customer and engagement forward to where it has to go. Pay close attention. You'll be glad you did. Very glad.

And did I tell you he's also a really good human being?

Mark...take it away, sir.

A little bit of background

Before we get into this article, I owe a big thank you to Mr Paul Greenberg on a number of counts:

  • spending time and engaging with me as an unknown working in a new area back in 2008
  • providing coaching and support throughout my career ever since
  • recognising the CRM work being undertaken at CSC (who I joined in September 2011)

and finally providing me with the opportunity for a guest post, I hope your readers like the article.

As Paul has already alluded, the era of the social customer is coming to an end; and the era of customer engagement is starting. For me and overall the thoughts wrapped up in Paul's predictions for 2012 make complete sense and align with a number of trends that I am seeing in the market place. From customers or consumers that I interact with, research papers and brochures that I read the general trend in the market seems to be a desire for more engagement of some type or form.

However, there is a danger that the term engagement is turning into yet another buzzword that nobody actually understands or agrees on. In addition change of any kind, in this case making engagement between brands and customers useful, is going to take some time to accomplish en masse (the social customer has been around for 3 years or more already).  When Mitch Lieberman explained his perspective on engagement, he introduced the fact that there should be a maturity model for engagement. Discussing it with him a little further we both agreed that customer relationships need to have the right kind of engagement approaches, but that the engagement approach might also determine the customer relationship. Essentially for engagement to be meaningful there needs to be a relationship strategy and an engagement strategy. The two are unique, but also intertwined.

Rather than attempt to define engagement, Scott Rogers did an excellent job of doing just that recently as another guest on Paul's blog, I will use this article to discuss another perspective which is that of customer behaviour and the overall relationship with the subject of engagement. My aim is to help drive forwards this conversation, provide some more clarity and to understand how business can serve people more effectively whilst being ever more profitable.

Paul is correct to say that the era of the social customer is coming to an end. It is fair to say that the social customer is understood as a type of customer. Today, the social customer is everywhere and they come from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences too. However, there will be more and more of them and they will change even more quickly as they have more choices, amplification, and impact in their interactions with colleagues, friends, relatives, and businesses. Indeed, as is the case today, they will most often be quite some way ahead of businesses in the way that they use digital media and new technology compared to the traditional corporate world.

There are many social customers...

It is important to recognise that there are different types of social customer. At the highest level, I have identified three. For now I am going to call these "Organic", "Scheming", and "Controlled". We will come back to what is meant by these groups later in the post with the help of some fantastic illustrations, which my Swedish colleague Andreas Olofstam has created. However, before doing so I would like to set some additional context about the social customer.

As the usage of social media (Facebook, Trip Advisor, Twitter, Amazon, E-Bay, YouTube, LinkedIn etc) took off and broadened, people started to share more information and experiences with each other. No longer was social media used to tell people what you were doing, or to organise a trip to a restaurant, or even to say you were at a particular restaurant. Increasingly it was used to say whether you had received a good or bad experience at a restaurant or whether you liked or disliked something. As people (aka consumers) flocked to social media sites, so did brands with an array of products, services and many marketing messages designed to "engage" customers. Some realised that Social Media required a different approach to traditional marketing and advertising, some did not.

When the presence of brands using social media proliferated in 2010 and 2011 (to the extent that many now provide a facebook or twitter address, rather than a website address in their advertising), the social customer extended their use of social media to interact with those brands too. Indeed, some brands forced customers to ‘like' or ‘follow' their brand (providing them with the customer's social graph) in order to interact with them. Sometimes this was requested in exchange for previews, content, offers, promotions, entry to competitions etc. As such, the predominant driving force behind the business use of Social Media was typically Marketing, Sales, and PR, rather than the operational elements of the business such as Customer Service.

Broadly, it was at this point that people (consumers) started to use Social Media differently. Some continued as they had always done so:  "Organic", some decided to hide behind pseudonyms: "Scheming", and some decided to tighten up the information that they shared: "Controlled". Indeed some decided to do all of these things in one way shape or form. As the terms and conditions and the rules of the game changed for many of the popular social networks and brands, so did some of the users of social media. Some decided to opt out completely, others went with the changes either through loyalty, ignorance, or acceptance that the benefit they received through usage was worth the ‘new' rules of the game.

What this kind of behaviour demonstrates is that unless the consumer can clearly see the value that they will get through their interaction with the brand through social media (whether that is the short or long term value), they won't interact in the way that the brand wants them to, as the emotional or logical needs of the customer summarised by the phrase "What's In It For Me" will not have been adequately addressed. Indeed many people have changed the way they interact with brands and have indeed managed their usage of social media accordingly too.

(Illustration by Andreas Olofstam)

The organic social customer started by using social media in order to connect with their friends and share information with them. Typically, they are open about their identity and provide genuine information about themselves. The organic social customer will at least review and sometimes take advantage of the offers that you target them with. They will praise you when you are doing things they ‘like' and criticise you when you are doing things they ‘dislike', whether the actions of your business are undertaken on Social Media or not. A good example of this is the genuine social media outburst that occurred in the UK when Starbucks recently changed their customer loyalty scheme (for the worse as judged by most consumers) without warning. Often they will communicate using a number of different channels too (not all of them being social).

(Illustration by Andreas Olofstam)

The scheming social customer uses social media in a different way. Typically, they will be anonymous in their usage of social media using false identities linked to e-mail accounts that they rarely use. They will do this in order to protect their real-world identity and the data that comes with their real social media profile. Typically, they will interact freely with brands on social media and they will praise/criticise you as they see appropriate too. They will sign up for offers and ‘like'/'follow' you since they won't actually see the marketing information that is sent to them as a result of that interaction. They will simply take the things that they want or need and move on to the next thing.

(Illustration by Andreas Olofstam)

The controlled social customer will use social media with a real-world identity, information, and content. However, they will be sure not to give too much away when interacting. Typically, they will have disabled most of the ‘sharing' features and will limit their status updates and many of other social features such as the usage of location based services, and the posting of videos and photographs too.

When developing externally facing Social Business and Social CRM strategies, business should examine the types of social customers they expect to sell products and services to and test or apply similar logic to their target market. I advocate this in addition to other techniques such as customer segmentation, user centred design, customer experience, needs analysis, service design, ethnography etc.

Rolling with Organic, Scheming, and Controlled Customers

Is it possible to have engagement with customers without knowing their identity? At the lower levels of the engagement maturity curve, yes of course it is. Are there identity, trust, and behavioural issues which business needs to resolve? Most likely yes there are, especially for the higher ends of the engagement maturity curve.

If indeed you are trying to reach the mid/top end of the engagement maturity curve, then you must reliably and consistently get the fulfilment of your products and services right before doing so. If you do not deliver on your promises or you fail somewhere along the supply chain, then you will not be likely to win the hearts and minds of your customers. Find ways to enable both emotion and logic to be part of the customer experience and determine how you can attract, acquire, and retain your customers by understanding their needs and pulling appropriate levers in order to personalise your offerings.

Businesses need to ensure that the digital customer experience meets the expectations of their customers; they need to understand more about their customers in order to do so. However, they must manage and encourage the scheming and controlled customer with a view to them ultimately become organic (at least with them) as well as find ways to co-create value with the organic social customer too.

Finally, below is what I believe are the critical success factors for engaging your customers:

  1. Ensure you understand social customers within your customer experience
  2. Use Customer Insight and Voice of the Customer techniques to understand the types of Social Customers you have
  3. Understand the behaviours of customers using your websites and social spaces
  4. Understand your customer as a person and what motivates them to both engage as well as buy products and services from you.

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