3 reasons social media matters more than you think

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s true, social media fatigue is starting to set in across the Internet. Consumers say they’re tired of receiving useless information through the latest and greatest social network and wary of giving up their personal data. A recent Pew survey, for example, says as much as 38 percent of Facebook users plan to use the service less this year.

But here’s one good reason you shouldn’t delete your Facebook or Twitter account yet: Companies are paying close attention to what you say. Closer than you can imagine.

The details came to light in a wire service report about Nestle’s “Digital Acceleration Team,” a command center that monitors the corporation’s online reputation.

Customers were surprised to hear Nestle wasn’t alone. Other large corporations, including PepsiCo, Danone and Unilever, reportedly also engage in this online reputation management.

To their credit, companies also want to use social media to help you. I recently heard from a major bank, which is building an army of “live” customer service representatives. Social servicing, as the bank calls it, has several notable benefits, both for consumers and companies. According to the company’s own research, 9 out of 10 times it’s faster than a phone call in resolving an issue, and allows companies to proactively reach their customers and engage the public in a positive way. To date, it has reached 16 million households via social media. (Related: Want better airline service? Power up your smartphone.)

I have had many positive experiences on social media, but unfortunately, some negative ones too. The inescapable conclusion: Social media matters more than you think. Maybe even more than you want. Here’s why:

Your social voice is loud

Like it or not, companies are paying closer attention to what you tweet than what you say by phone. And with good reason. A single digital utterance can go viral in a few minutes, causing irreparable harm to a company. Until corporations figure out a way to neutralize your electronic speech (and believe me, they’re trying), they’ll probably always give your social media opinions more weight than anything you could write in an email or say in a phone call.

For companies, it’s a more efficient way to communicate

Whether it’s focused on managing a company’s reputation or on managing customer-service expectations, social media allows fewer staff to do more. Many responses can be pre-scripted. Some comebacks can be completely automated. Certainly, tracking customer queries is easier through social media, which leaves a digital “trail.” It’s easy to see why companies would embrace social media in a big way and why, maybe, you should, too.

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The mystery of the unknown

Social media, and whatever comes next, is a constantly changing medium. No one knows what it will bring, or how it could further empower customers. That unnerves companies. They’re looking for a sure thing, like email or paper letters. They miss the old days, when a select few controlled access to media. So when they look at social media, they’re confused and worried about the future. Even if they manage to figure out a way to bury your social media critiques of their customer service practices, there’s probably an awareness that they won’t always be able to do so. Such is the nature of social media and communication in the 21st century.

I admit, seeing some of these large companies building a massive presence online is enough to make you walk away in despair. After all, if they’re trying to control the social space in this way, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all “managed” — which is corporate-speak for having our consumer voices squelched.

But I see it differently. I think customers have never had a bigger megaphone and that companies are rushing to meet us online not just because they want to control what’s being said about them, but also because they actually care about helping their consumers. The unpredictability of the medium will keep the balance of power shifted to us for a long time to come.

By the way, if you’re having trouble with a product or service, there is a way out. Read more about it here.

See you online.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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