Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Getting the message from social media

Shop front of Berry Bros and Rudd (Berry Bross and Rudd)
Many people pay a virtual visit to the wine Berry Bros looks after for them.

For many people, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have changed how they stay in touch with family, friends and coworkers.

Those changes are also now becoming apparent to businesses keen to exploit social media.

Its usefulness is even tempting the most venerable of businesses.

Founded in 1698, Berry Bros and Rudd is the oldest wine company in Britain. But just because it dates from the era of William and Mary that does not make it a technophobe, said Charlie Bennett who oversees its web operations.

Berry Bros has an iPhone app for its catalogue that customers, both committed and casual, can browse through. It has blogs, has toyed with podcasts and its Facebook pages are under development. It also runs some services unique to the wine trade.

"Customers can make a virtual visit to their wine," said Mr Bennett. "They buy the wines and we lay them down."

"The area of the site where people can view their wine cellar is very heavily visited," he added.

This is despite the fact that the experience of drinking, of savouring, of taking time to enjoy the riot of flavours in a glass seems to be the antithesis of the relentless pace of the web.

Not so, said Mr Bennett. Berry Bros has even embraced that flag-bearer of the up-to-the-minute web - Twitter.

Some wine buyers for the firm have their own Twitter account and send messages, or tweet, when they are on a tasting trip. But, said Mr Bennett, strict rules govern what can be said via the micro-blogging service.

"I feel quite strongly that people should only tweet when they have something to say," said Mr Bennett. "We do not use it commercially. That's not what it's there for."

Berry Bros is not alone in realising that the intimacy of the social web makes it different and that communication via this channel should not be just about selling.

Community choice

The reason for the change lies in the psychology of the communal web experience made possible by Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, said Nik Roope, founding partner of digital media agency Poke London.

"Users experience the web as a reality," said Mr Roope. "Web things feel more tangible and are a reflection of values."

"That's a reason why it's so important to get it right," he said. "You can undermine it by behaving wrongly."

Kevin Smith, AP
Bumping Kevin Smith off a flight became a PR disaster for Southwest Airlines

In the world of social media, trying to use it as a sales channel falls under the heading of bad behaviour. Selling, say digital marketing experts, is about one way communication. It involves telling people what they need.

"Some tried to use it as a commercial tool and that went completely against the grain and it backfired," said Steve Richards, business director at media agency Yomego.

By contrast, social media is a two-way channel. Companies have to listen as much, if not more than, they use it to talk.

"It's about inviting, embracing and owning it and saying we are going to listen and be receptive," he said.

When companies fail to listen they can get a sharp lesson in customer relations, said Mr Richards.

In mid-February cabin crew on a Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland to Burbank told a passenger that he would have to disembark because they believed he was too overweight to fly.

What the aircrew did not know was that the passenger was film director Kevin Smith who has more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter. Mr Smith tweeted about his treatment and the incident swiftly became a PR disaster.

The coverage prompted Southwest to ring Mr Smith and apologise in person, explain that he was not bumped because of being overweight, write up the apology on its blog, admit that the incident had not been handled well, and offer compensation. The blog on Southwest Airlines has now gathered more than 1600 comments.

Baker Tweet, Poke
Poke made a gadget to announce when fresh buns went on sale

The upside to the explosion of social media and having those conversations take place in cyberspace is that they can be an excellent early warning system, said Mr Richards.

"If something is a potential PR disaster and starts becoming a campaign, we know about it very quickly," he said.

The good thing is that those conversations about good and bad experiences at the hands of companies which used to take place in pubs, clubs and living rooms are now on the web. Far better, said Mr Richards, to take notice rather than ignore the chatter.

It used to be the case that companies expected people to come to their website when they wanted to talk about product and services, get help or find out about new offers.

No longer, said Mr Richards, companies now have to find out where the conversations are taking place and take an interest.

Social change

Appreciating that difference is not all that companies have to contend with when trying to exploit social media. The really hard part is giving up any notion of control.

Man pointing at computer screen, Eyewire
Many experience the web as a reality, say media experts.

"Companies are very happy with making a homepage or site because they can control every pixel on those pages," said Mr Roope from Poke London.

With community sites they have to take a back seat and let people get on with it, he said.

Often those that gather to talk about a product, company or service are not doing it to criticise, said Mr Roope. They can be good advocates and even defend a company if a customer reports poor service or problems with a product.

One thing is clear, he said, companies have to get involved. They cannot ignore the conversations any more. And they need to take action quickly as people discover the speed and usefulness of social media.

"If this becomes as powerful as it seems to be, then the traditional marketing channels will not be enough to shore up relationships between customer and company," he said.

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