AT&T’s tips for evolving in a social media world

Step on it, not in it. Listen actively. Automate for key influencers. Here’s how AT&T stays ahead of the curve.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

In 2007, there were 400,000 tweets per quarter on Twitter. Today there are 500 million tweets per day, says Larry Solomon, AT&T senior vice president of corporate communication.

So, what happened?

June 29, 2007, was the day that changed communication—and the lives of communicators—forever. The iPhone was released, the mobile revolution took off, making it possible for people to mouth off anywhere at any time.

“It’s a 24/7 conversation,” Solomon told his Ragan conference audience. “That’s why most of us in this room don’t get any sleep.”

In a Ragan Training session titled “Evolve your company’s brand and your skills for a mobile-social world,” Solomon offers lessons in areas that include surfing the news wave, making use of data, and the red-hot competition for customers on social media.

Here are some tips for the new era:

1. Step on it, not in it.

Get involved quickly, but don’t step in it, Solomon says. He offers these tips:

  • Look for general negativity related to the trend.
  • Make sure it’s not part of another brand initiative.
  • Stay cognizant of competitor participation.
  • Study influencers and other brands as they engage.

When AT&T tweeted an image of a hand holding up a smartphone in front of the site where the Twin Towers used to be, the intent was to honor 9/11 victims. AT&T checked with numerous people, including some who lived in New York City.

Unfortunately, Twitterdom didn’t see it as fitting memorial, in part because of the product placement. The company was deluged with criticism, Solomon says. Of note, though: Opinions were more divided on Facebook.

AT&T quickly took down the tweet and posted an apology. Even the chairman called to criticize the tweet (and he would also apologize). The stumble illustrates the difficult line for organizations between being stepping on it and stepping in it on social media.

AT&T has since set up a new process for vetting any tweets that are even close to being insensitive or offensive. Solomon, the chief attorney and the chief marketing officer have to sign off on it.

This clip is excerpted from a Ragan Training video, “Evolve your company’s brand and your skills for a mobile-social world.”

2. Listen actively

Twitter is the canary in the coal mine, enabling your listening team to be first responders. If, say, there’s a wireless network outage in Boston, the board lights up in AT&T’s social media listening center even before network operations is aware of the problem.

A panel represents the volume of tweets—positive, negative or neutral—and when the listening center determines what’s wrong, “We’ll call the network guys and say, ‘We think there’s a problem in Boston,'” Solomon says.

Social media issues tweets letting customers know the company is working on the problem. PR prepares a response for the news media. That’s how AT&T stays ahead of the game.

3. Automate for key influencers

AT&T gets 650,000 mentions a month, 75,000 of which are customer service folks assuring people, “I can help you.”

So how do you avoid missing a tweet from someone important? Automate. If a congressman tweets about AT&T, the system will send a message to the government relations team to follow up. If a journalist tweets, the media relations team will be notified.

This helps the company to avoid missing what essential powerbrokers and opinion makers are saying.

4. Watch for opportunities

Brand managers increasingly are going after other brands’ customers on social media, Solomon said. That is, they are identifying people who are unhappy with their wireless provider and are looking to make the leap to another.

During a 2014 NBA playoff game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies, Cox Cable experienced an outage in the middle of the game. Later, AT&T U-verse tweeted, “Missed last night’s game because your cable was out? Ouch.”

AT&T encouraged fans to share the information with friends. “In Oklahoma City, in the two days following this, we saw our sales go up 24 percent,” Solomon says.


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