10 major brands offer lessons on social media

Here’s how companies are using social media, the lessons they’ve learned, and how you can make their tips work for you.

I recently attended the Corporate Social Media Summit, a gathering of some of the best minds in social media.

The team at Useful Social Media put on the event, and useful social media was the theme of the day as panelists offered real case studies, answered tough questions, and demonstrated there is hope for large corporate brands to actively use social media to generate business value.

Here are some of the biggest lessons that 10 brands discussed on the first day of the event:

1. American Express*: “Altruism has a long tail”

American Express Open Forum‘s VP of Social Media, Laura Fink, took attendees behind the scenes of the hugely successful “Small Business Saturday” campaign that American Express launched in November 2010. On Small Business Saturday, American Express rewarded customers with a $25 statement credit for shopping at a small business.

Fink said the campaign engaged more than 1.2 million small businesses around the country and helped those businesses see a 28 percent sales increase on the day of the promotion. Perhaps more important, it showed that doing something good can generate a real business impact for customers as well as for the big brand putting on the campaign.

2. Union Pacific: “Never underestimate local communities”

As one of the largest railway companies in the United States, Union Pacific has been around for nearly 150 years. To celebrate this heritage Tim McMahan, senior manager of media technology, shared a case study of a crowdsourcing competition that Union Pacific held to get people to vote on the ideal route for an old steam engine to take on the “Union Pacific Great Excursion Adventure.”

Union Pacific split the voting into several rounds and saw fierce competition from unexpected locations. McMahan shared that the consistently surprising result was that smaller towns like Tuscola, Ill., were routinely outpacing big metro markets like Chicago in each round. The point, he noted, was that sometimes the most passion can come from smaller communities for whom winning may be a bigger deal. Union Pacific recorded nearly 200,000 votes and more than 100,000 email addresses across the campaign. The brand plans to reprise the campaign next year.

3. Coca-Cola*: “The most important number in social media is 360”

Through the brilliant video below, Coke’s Director of Digital Communications, Ashley Brown, told the story of an ambitious PR idea which turned into the brand’s largest-ever social media campaign. The mission was to send three travelers on a journey to all 206 countries where Coke is sold.

The trio embarked Jan. 1, 2010, and anyone could follow their travels and adventures on the Expedition 206 website (which sadly doesn’t seem to be available anymore). Their goal in each country was to find what made people happy, which Brown said was in line with its “open happiness” campaign.

The answers the trio received ranged from family to music to dancing to soccer. (Yes, they made it to the World Cup in South Africa.) Through the lens of a social experiment disguised as marketing, the Coke team managed to reach what may be the most profound conclusion of all—that happiness is always simple, whatever form it takes.

4. Best Buy: “Nobody owns social media”

In one of the most eye-opening talks of the day, Gina Debogovich shared some big lessons she learned during the last three to four years of building up the Best Buy customer service and social care center to what is now called the “Twelp Force.”

A former customer care representative, Debogovich talked about how Best Buy uses the overarching mission of “creating meaningful communications in the virtual world” to guide all its efforts. It has an inner circle of 26 team members dedicated to social media, and another 3,000 employees whom Best Buy actively encourages to use social platforms. The company offers an array of social media training.

Gina’s team offers companies advice on various tasks, such as how to effectively use Facebook for their specific store. In addition, Gina’s team is the only customer care team in the world that has its own production studio for creating content, such as the Best Buy Unboxing feature. In one case, Gina discussed how the team managed to reduce the volume of one “call driver” (the top reason people call a contact center) by 50 percent simply by producing a video to answer that question.

Disclaimer: I moderated the panel where Gina spoke.

5. Samsung: “Negative experiences are our biggest opportunity”

Samsung recently made strides in integrating social media with its customer service, and it has joined online conversations about the brand.

One of the leaders of this, Jessica Kalbarczyk, shared her insights about how her small team manages to engage people online about Samsung and help solve their problems. For Jessica, coming from a marketing and PR role into one more focused on customer service was a fulfilling move because every day she addresses real problems and changes consumer experiences one by one.

Anyone in a marketing role who has suffered through never-ending meetings about social media without a real vision or tangible outcome will easily be able to imagine how nice it must be to solve real problems on a daily basis. Jessica shared a point of view which is common among customer service pros: They would much rather find negativity, have a chance to fix it, and change that customer’s perception. Marketers, on the other hand, tend to run scared in the opposite direction from negativity. There is clearly a lesson here about the necessity of closely integrating marketing and customer service.

Disclaimer: I moderated the panel where Jessica spoke.

6. Dell: “Forget ROI and focus more broadly on business value”

Dell is most likely at the top of most analysts’ lists of brands that have managed to integrate social media into its operations in a tangible way. During his talk, Richard Binhammer shared a historical perspective of how social media became integrated into the organization. One of the most powerful points in his presentation was where he shared the six business areas that have fully embraced social media for different business reasons: marketing, product development, sales, online presence, customer service and communications.

Whereas other brands focus on one of these at a time, Dell has reached a point where it can “inhale and exhale at the same time,” Richard shared in his talk. Ultimately, his biggest point was that “ROI” is a restricting term when it comes to describing what social media can offer, and we need to think about a much stronger way to describe the real value behind it.

Disclaimer: I moderated the panel where Richard spoke.

7. Southwest: “Have fun and be human”

“Fun” and “airline” are not words that anyone would typically use in the same sentence, yet Southwest Airlines’ social media manager, Alice Wilson, devoted a good part of her talk to how Southwest creates a more human brand by using an irreverent voice. The issues that keep many other large brands up at night—like making sure they have backup for employees who are running social media channels, or mapping everything back to a specific campaign or column on a spreadsheet—don’t seem to matter as much for Southwest. The company has guiding principles around its social voice, yet Alice shares that most people who speak out for the brand “just get the hang of it.” Without the formalized training or overly bureaucratic approach to managing every aspect of Southwest, the brand succeeds because it has a strong culture that people take on as their own from Day One. This translates into social media.

Disclaimer: I moderated the panel where Alice spoke.

8. Kodak: “Real time listening pays off”

Kodak is a brand that has won a lot of respect for how forward thinking it has been in moving into social media over the past several years. Kodak even published a guidebook which was available to attendees on how to use social media, and what the company has learned about it. Tom Hoen, Kodak’s director of interactive marketing, shared examples demonstrating the power of listening.

In one, the brand awoke one day to a barrage of negativity from fans of the Nickelodeon TV show “Degrassi” because there was a rumor that the brand had pulled all its advertising due to the show’s occasionally adult themes. Fairly rapidly, Kodak used social media to quash the rumor—it was actually just a natural pause in flighting for their ads—and engage the angry voices. One person shared on Twitter: “Now I feel bad. I told the Kodak people to eff themselves sideways, and they sent me a tweet being all nice.”

Aside from the newly found good feelings, “Degrassi” and Nickelodeon offered Kodak two free spots during the season premiere. Not a bad ROI for engaging a few irate teens.

9. New York Life: “Brands need to trust their people”

An unexpected voice at the event came from Gregory Weiss, the associate vice president of social media for New York Life. He started with an entertaining look at the hypocritical nature of business and at how many large brands are afraid of what their employees might do with social media, even though they let those same employees have phones, use fax machines and talk to people outside the company. His main point was that if you can’t trust your employees to do the right things and make the right choices, then maybe you need to hire better people.

Weiss offered several tips for using social media in a corporate environment, including supporting your existing sales force, getting on the agenda of new hire initiations so you can tell them about social media, and a few simple things like encouraging employees to add the company’s social media properties to their email signatures.

Another point I took away, though he didn’t mention it, was about the importance of picking your battles. Apparently, New York Life has a vetting process that it uses internally before any social media property can link to an outside website. This might seem like overkill for many brands, but Greg manages to work around it without making it a big issue.

10. Pepsi: “Reward people for everyday behavior”

The last presentation of the day came from Josh Karpf, who focuses on an area that more brands should consider having as part of their marketing efforts—digital research and development. Karpf’s group runs many forward-thinking experiments on how to use social media to engage consumers. He shared some real examples and hard data from a few of their efforts to offer couponing as a layer on top of geolocation to encourage people to check in.

For one campaign with Hess convenience stores, Karpf’s team found that using a Foursquare promotion in a particular location offered a 47 percent boost in volume of purchase over previous weeks where the campaign was not running—a great result for the retailer. On the Pepsi side, they learned that coupon redemptions were much higher when offered to people as a reward for some type of behavior. This seems to offer the logical conclusion that people are more likely to claim the discount or product from a coupon if they feel they had to earn that coupon in some way, such as by checking into the gym for 10 days during a month.

*NOTE: Several of the brands mentioned are current or previous Ogilvy clients. In particular, Coca-Cola and American Express are both clients, and some Ogilvy team members may have worked on both of the campaigns mentioned. In both cases, I did not work on either campaign and also have not been compensated or encouraged in any way to write about these two brands or these campaigns. I am also a contributor to the American Express Open Forum website.

Rohit Bhargava is the award-winning author of Personality Not Included , a founding member of the Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence team, and Adjunct Professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University. He also blogs at Influential Marketing Blog , where this article originally ran.

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