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Make social a key touchpoint, says customer expert Phil Winters

In a wide-ranging interview, Phil Winters of customer experience consultancy Peppers & Rogers covers issues from how companies can adapt to social media, to Apple's "unethical" behaviour with location data.

Phil Winters: customer expert from consultancy Peppers & Rogers

Phil Winters: customer expert from consultancy Peppers & Rogers

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As social media matures, brands have become increasingly assured in their dealings with customers in the medium.

In the early days, some were too bashful while some were too bolshie, but later arrivals have settled on a form of etiquette.

This typically involves waving a social media calling card in your ads, website or packaging, and perhaps a targeted promotion inviting a consumer to join your gang with the implied promise of getting to know each other better.

The question of how an organisation then understands and develops that relationship was what drew around 50 marketers to a seminar held by marketing software company Neolane last week.

Neolane demonstrated its recently introduced Social Marketing application, which is designed to help brands turn anonymous social media fans into opted-in, identifiable customers, and has been endorsed by record company EMI, a pilot user.

The audience also heard a keynote speech by Winters, a management consultant at Peppers & Rogers, who for nearly 30 years has helped firms focus on customer experience.

Asserting that social media was becoming one of the key ways consumers of all ages encounter a company, Winters encouraged his audience to relate it to their classic customer touchpoints such as staff, shops, and advertising, and to get involved.

Talking to Brand Republic after the event, Winters said executives who were avoiding engaging with social media out of fear they cannot control it, "either need to wake up or retire".

He divides organisations who have engaged into two categories: those that are playing with social media, but not thinking about who it is focused on, and those who "understand that individuals are changing the touchpoints they use to make decisions and are trying to address that in a structured and holistic fashion".

Winters encourages experimentation, but warns that companies shouldn’t keep their social media function separate from marketing and other outward-facing departments.

He says: "The organisations that have social media marketing managers and marketing managers for everything else I think are going to have problems in the long term.

"Now if you start some experiments for a while that’s fine, but this will become a part of your touchpoints to the customer, which means you do need to have someone who is responsible for everything.

"[Also] you have to have much tighter integration with the call centre because the call centre has the human touchpoint … the ones that have to right a lot of things.

"A lot of times the customer service department is separated from marketing and that, in the long term, needs to be done carefully, because at the end of the day the customer expects that customer service knows what marketing is doing, knows what the direct sales force is doing, knows what social media is doing."

Social's impact on advertising

At one point in his presentation, Winters predicted there would be a swing in marketers’ attention and spend away from advertising and towards social media, although direct marketing would be unaffected.

In the interview, he points to electronic goods as the industry where this shift will be seen soonest, but backtracks on his assertion that marketers would be paying less attention to advertising.

Instead, he suggests, "advertising is going to change its stripes" as technology such as Neolane's helps turn anonymous social media fans and followers into identifiable customers.

"I guess there's always a question: is there anybody doing this for real? I talked to EMI, who's doing this with the Neolane platform. They're actually doing this integration of Facebook with some of the traditional channels and having some successes with it," he says.

"If we do this right, we are creating new fact-based insight around the value, behaviour and needs of our known customer segments. They still need offers, they still need to be delighted, they still need to have a lot of those creative things that make people want to come and do business with you.

"Just having a Facebook page isn’t going to be good unless there’s creative going in there, so I think the good creative agencies are realising that and are shifting their creative individuals to understanding that there are other ways of surfacing creativity than just advertising."

We move on to discussing Twitter, on which Winters claims to have seen "some very bad examples" of marketing, observing: "You can actually spam much worse on Twitter than you can spam with emails".

But, while he agrees Twitter generally has less appeal to marketers than Facebook, he cautions: "Twitter is still finding its place. Customers of all types are deciding how it works. I’ve already started seeing very focused Twitter applications – for example what some of the airlines are doing with it is absolutely brilliant."

Likewise, customer contact via other social media touchpoints such as Facebook, Foursquare and apps is still evolving, says Winters.

"There are lots of experiments, some will work, some won't. The most important thing is that you find something that does work that you can actually incorporate it into your strategy and your platform, and not just have it as another random activity."

Location data and Apple

One area where few UK brands have as yet ventured is location-based marketing. Like any other touchpoint, says Winters, brands need to give people a benefit to get their permission to use their data.

Later on, a different angle on the subject crops up when after a question about Sony's recent data woes, Winters suddenly shifts the ethical spotlight onto Apple, which was recently found to be capturing location data from iPhone users.

"I don't think Sony did anything wrong," says Winters, "I've worked with Sony in the past. I realise how professional and ethical they are.

"I'm more concerned that nobody is talking about what Apple did by building in the capture of data on all of the iPhones and forgetting to tell everybody that they were capturing all the data. That for me is unethical behaviour.

"Now whether the senior management at Apple, Steve Jobs, knew about it or not, someone in that organisation made the decision to put that app on and not tell anyone that they were collecting all the data. And it's unencrypted data and with a very little programme, you can capture it."

Haven't people accused Google of similar things?

Winters is more circumspect, answering that he thinks Google, Facebook and Twitter are "going to go through challenges over the next 18 months ... the whole legal rigmarole around these new channels is going to continue".

He observes that "we" are technically giving Google and Facebook "permission to collect all of our data", but suggests the wind may change as consumers get wiser.

He relates a "wonderful summary" by Commerzbank marketer Martin Nitsche, who told him: "In the 70s and 80s we were worried about the Government, Big Brother, collecting data about us. Then in the 90s and the 2000s, we worried about companies collecting data. Now it's down to the point we have to protect the consumers from themselves."

Winters predicts legal changes over the next 18 months, but draws the focus back to being ethical with handling consumer data.

People who steal or give data away they weren't allowed to should go to jail, he says, but, "if you do something that is right for your consumers, you don't have to worry about data protection.

"It's all about educating consumers, protecting consumers against themselves, getting consumers to realise what it means, because data has value and it has to be a fair trade. If it's a fair trade, then there's never a problem."

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