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Thoughts on MediaAces conference on Social Media: ROI, blurring of roles and crisis management

April 6, 2010

Some 10 days ago, I attended the MediaAces’ quarterly event on the use of social media in France.  The afternoon gathering brought together some 250 attendees around case studies presented by some of the MediaAces members. I listened to presentations from SNCF(Cyril Cohen), MMA (Thierry Crahes) and HighCo Data (Olivier Hublau), as well as a trends watch from Cedric Deniaud closing the session. I would have loved to attend other presentations, especially the Veolia one covering use of social media internally, but that was happening in parallel in a different room.

The 3 case studies focused on use of social media externally, i.e. for communication, marketing and CRM, although those designations seem a bit archaic and inadequate in such milieu. In such an assembly, what is interesting is to empathize with speaker and listeners issues beyond the presentations’ messages. I picked up two items for this post: speakers questioning around the blurring of roles; and attendees questions on moderation and crisis management. But to begin, some thoughts about the ongoing ROI debate.

ROI crux: ahead or beyond?

My first impression was that all cases presented were ahead of dealing with return on investment – each speaker added his voice to the song of “we are in apprenticeship, testing, with no long term plans” (MMA), with a chorus of “we don’t know the ROI yet”. Now when looking to my notes and to the presentations online, I’m wondering if this is really an issue. Each speaker lined up a long list of benefits, mainly intangibles, and each could get the resources – human and financial – to develop and operate their projects; further, they all have a “what’s next” framework, even if changeable and not necessarily called a Plan. Could it be that we reached a stage where social media has become a must-have, a commodity? Does social media not need a standalone ROI exercise but already belongs inherently to the standard assets and indirect resources?

While social media sharpen, roles blur

The SNCF, the state-owned French national railways, opened its site to the crowds in what they call the “opinions & debates” platform: transport users ask their questions and share their grumbles there. First surprise: 90% of the threads (10 thousands in 2 years) are answered by people who are not SNCF-representatives. They range from other users to railway passionnates and include many SNCF employees answering in their own names, voluntarily. Second surprise, Communications is not first-line: no answer is prepared and even less “packaged” (i.e. not filtered or edited by Communications or Marketing) – users trust is sought  and because no topic is sacred, this trust is a function of SNCF’s genuineness and humility.

MMA, the fourth car insurer in France, but “first in sympathy”, is about to make the decision to accompany their 1800 agents in setting up their own sites and conversation areas. “There are more and more questions about the role of local agents in social media, and because of social medias” said the speaker, “and how we may ‘play’ with social networks; in Facebook for example, we’re not yet sure on who should answer the conversations, MMA representatives or agents”.  MMA also decided not to appoint a community manager (or several), but to let the e-business and channels team act, on top of their regular roles.

Highco Data, a subsidiary of High CO (Euronext HCO) specialized in direct marketing through coupons, has added market intelligence to its services: “consumers give us news about the brand, before the brand”.  And even though they’re a B2B business, they started a blog, Promo Affinity, targeting consumers – that with a totally different graphic policy, their own brand has disappeared.

Sympathizers and consumers become spokespersons, glocal may mean local over global, new growth models do not necessarily carry a brand – that’s how I see roles blurring.

“How do you moderate?”; “We don’t. We answer asap and watch for crisis”

Apart from removing messages including personal data or being obviously commercial, speakers’ organizations don’t moderate their communities: “No taboo, users are free to tackle any subject” (SNCF). Answers need to go real time, even though question can be touchy, such as the one mentioned by MMA: “You’re not competitive in motorcycle insurance, what do you plan to do?” got a frank and open answer explaining that their focus was on cars.

“The paradox is that corporations want to intrude social media, while whatever effort they make, they won’t be able to control it” (HighCo Data).

At SNCF, questions are answered by representatives as soon as users rate them interesting – the remainder is left to the goodwill of “good samaritans”. But reps watch, especially for crisis seeds: “We answer as early as possible to contain the growing flow of similar questions, and we see it as an opportunity to take the floor and get messages across on serious subjects”. The funny thing is that that same morning, the SNCF site announced a fake major train disaster; this announcement was on 20mn and seen by hundreds of people. Apparently, it was a crisis management exercice, but they forgot to disconnect the bridge between the operational and the test infrastructures. The problem was addressed by a communiqué, which probably got more press than the incident itself! A nice try to render a crisis exercise more efficient, and an illustration that even a mini-crisis (announcing a fake disaster) can help convey important messages (SNCF are taking crisis seriously and getting ready).

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