3 Social Media Questions Every Brand Should Ask Itself

Are you prepared to get customer feedback in public? It might sound scary, but it's a lot cheaper than traditional focus groups. And if you do it right, it can be more effective, too.

The balance of power between companies and customers has shifted now that social media gives all customers a public platform to make themselves heard.

Whether it’s cable providers, retailers, or their favorite TV shows, increasingly consumers use social networks to air their opinions about the companies and brands they patronize. In fact, according to a recent LiveOps survey, 34% of consumers said if they have a problem with a company, the first place they'll take that complaint is to the company’s social media channels.

This makes social media a powerful channel to mine for customer feedback. Millions of people use social to express their opinions on everything, and much of this data is public and accessible for analysis. That said, social media may only convey part of the story. Can social media function as a focus group for brands? Can it even replace the traditional focus group?

How should brands use social media?

Brands often look for absolutes on social media—i.e., customers either love them or hate them. Don’t fall into the sentiment trap and look only at compliments or complaints; mine the entire conversations for trends. Are there hidden messages that might not even be directed at your brand that can tell you a lot about underlying consumer wants and needs? Sometimes there is a larger story in what customers are implicitly saying.

Retail giant Walmart uses social media to understand what types of products to carry. Recently, while evaluating whether to offer kits for making cake pops, they began a Twitter listening campaign around the topic. At the time, Starbucks had just introduced these bite-sized snacks and Walmart discovered that customers were buzzing about them. Seeing this enthusiasm, Walmart decided to carry the kits. They found that online excitement translated to offline sales, and the company plans to continue to carry cake pop kits in the future.

While listening to existing social activity is powerful, brands can engage customers directly to solicit feedback. This tactic narrows the field from "What’s the general feeling about a product?" to "How can we enhance this product and make it more appealing to you?"

Frito-Lay uses social media to puts its customers at the center of its product development. Instead of conducting a traditional focus group, which can cost thousands of dollars for a handful of interviews, it took its campaign to Facebook. Tapping into the site’s billion users, Frito created the "I’d Eat That" app, where customers could create their own flavors and vote on ones they like. In addition to generating lots of new ideas, the company was able to tailor its offerings based on preferences in certain regions. For example, they discovered hot and spicy crab went over well in Thailand and pickled cucumber was a hit in Serbia.

How much control should a brand relinquish to customers?

Most companies pride themselves on being customer-centric, so does that mean you are abandoning this ideal if you don’t agree to a customer’s every demand?

The short answer is no.

Steve Jobs famously said, "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them." Innovative companies like Apple strive to see beyond the present and create products that their customers will want even if those customers can’t clearly articulate their needs. Research has shown that customer feedback during the product development cycle can actually be damaging to originality. When trying to create something truly new, soliciting feedback too early may actually be detrimental.

Not every company is Apple, of course. Companies should absolutely use research and feedback to drive incremental improvements in products and product lines (even Apple). For example, trends in social media conversations can help brands understand the strengths of a current product or where it might be falling short. And even if customers can’t always predict their future needs, don’t discount customer ideas. They can be an important source of inspiration when combined with brand expertise.

How should brands engage with customers on social media?

Customers want to know brands are listening, and the companies that take notice on social media are often rewarded with greater loyalty. Studies show that customers who engage with companies via social media spend 20% to 40% more money with those companies than other customers, and grant them an average of a 33-point-higher Net Promoter® score.

With appropriate training, your front-line social media team can often turn complaints into valuable feedback. Even if there’s no opportunity for you to engage directly, customer input on social media can and should be tracked to identify and address trends.

If you are actively soliciting customer feedback via social media, think carefully about how you approach customers. Your customers value their time, and while creative executions such as Facebook apps may help to generate responses, customers may either ignore your efforts or resent donating their time to "corporate crowdsourcing." Remember to make sure there is something in it for them.

Social feedback usually means public feedback. Are you prepared to receive and respond to customer responses in public? Make sure to have a plan in place in the event you encounter a truly unhappy respondent.

Social media offers an incredible opportunity to harvest feedback through listening tools and to directly solicit it en masse from customers. This creates an opportunity to gather data from a significantly larger sample at a significantly lower cost than the traditional focus group approach. While social media does not replace other forms of research and feedback, companies that successfully integrate social feedback into their product development processes will have a huge advantage over those that simply choose not to listen.

Hayes Davis is cofounder and CEO of Union Metrics, a social media metrics service based in San Francisco, CA. He has more than 10 years of experience in designing and developing high-quality, mission-critical web software. Follow him on Twitter at @hayesdavis.

[Image: Flickr user Mika Andrianoelison]

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  • Victorhainman

    Hi there, love the article...social media feedback from customers is almost inevitable. The negative ones are surely going to occur more frequently that the positive ones as people just are to eager to share negative experiences online. Businesses just have to accept that. 

    However, there are ways to reduce the number of online negative feedback from customers as more and more companies are turning to on-site and real time feedback solutions so customers can leave feedback while they are still on the premises of the company and management can act quickly to rectify any problem or try to change the experience of an unsatisfied guest before they get hold of their computers and eventually social media platforms... Cheers

  • Anthony Reardon

    Nice article Hayes,

    I found it interesting how you focused on using social media for feedback. I sometimes find myself at odds with "Big Data" proponents, but when you are talking about metrics as "insights", then the issue of actual customer feedback might be a constructive bridge between the quantitative and qualitative. That's a pretty sharp approach.

    The balance of power "is" shifting between companies and customers. In my opinion, it's not just that customers now have a platform to be heard, but in a broader sense to be respected as relative equals. To the customer, social media intimates a level playing field. That is, traditional media models were mostly a one way communication where brands had the authority of being the formal presence of industry, and on that stage customers were essentially non-existent. However, now customers not only have a voice, but individually own the same kind of formal credibility of a brand, and collectively have the social authority of industry.

    So- when asking how brands should use social media, I think "feedback" is certainly an improvement on the exclusivity of the traditional model, but can still in a sense reverse discriminate. For instance, a brand can invite participation but still end up condescending. It might be empowering to a degree to say we allow you to influence the direction of our products etc, but socially you might be building up the authority of your brand while condescending your market into their place. That's still the traditional relational model of "We sell/ You buy". Relating to "customers" is constructive, but I think it needs to be more along the lines of business to business and demonstrating the kind of respect you would offer in a more intimate partnership.

    Also thought it interesting how you brought up control. That question is one of the first many businesses express concern over when integrating a two-way feedback loop. I agree that a company shouldn't necessarily let customer feedback own them, but again how you do this makes a difference. On one hand, iterating that people don't know what they really want, or that you know better- while possibly valid- can still put people down. I actually think, by definition- research and feedback- can be self-serving when those same benefits can be a by product of developing superior market intimacy. People can get a social benefit through their involvement with a company and their process, so the issue of "control" needs to be rethought in terms that aren't mutually exclusive.

    Brands should engage with customers on social media directly. Of course, there is that whole cost issue of applying resources to the front lines, but I think the significance in personal service is often understated by the perceived automative efficiency of technology. One consequence of formalizing yourself of a brand behind a virtual wall is you foster animosity and apathy. To present something and listen or monitor without directly engaging can still express that you aren't interested in who people are and don't care about what is important to them despite your intention.

    Stimulating article.

    Best, Anthony

  • Hayes Davis


    Some really excellent points here. Let me respond to a couple of them...

    I completely agree that the amplification inherent in social media has given each individual significantly more power to influence a large company than ever before. I do think though that large enough groups of customers have always been able to influence the direction of companies by, if nothing else, voting with their wallets. In that regard, I think the "consumer" relationship has always been a lot less passive than we assume - even in the era of broadcast media. Social media has just made this feedback process vastly easier to execute and much more visible as it unfolds. This is a huge net positive.

    Regarding condescension and intimacy... As you imply, this is really about a company working to understand the needs and desires of the people that make up its market. Doing that effectively requires a level of empathy and understanding that ultimately yields better products and (hopefully) better returns. I believe that companies that only pretend to care about their customers' needs do so at their peril regardless of medium.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to this article. I really appreciate it.


  • Anthony Reardon

    Terrific insights Hayes,

    My pleasure, and I enjoyed what I discovered on Union Metrics.


  • danielmckean

    Hayes, enjoyed your post. The three questions outlined all have the underlying theme of having a clear and purposeful social media strategy. There's been a lot of discussion of the disconnect between strategy versus execution and without a clear strategy and defined use, Brands will continue to struggle to define the elusive ROI. 

  • Chris Reich

    These are great questions. I would also add this one:

    Is "social media" worth your time investment?

    The answer is often a solid NO. As business owners we often chase the hype but fads often fail to deliver. Remember the outrageous cost of the yellow pages in the old days? Few businesses saw a return for the cost of larger ads.

  • naianaia

    If the brands can not find a proper way of evaluating their work via social media, the answer may often be NO. For example, if brands seek for direct sales and money return via Fackbook, they might be disappointed. But, if it is market research related or branding, I think social media is definitely a good way.