I stepped back in surprise as hands flew up around the room.
“How many of you were born outside the United States?” I’d asked business students at the Community College of Denver. Nearly a third raised their hands, and the nations they represented spanned the globe from China to Brazil to Russia.
So began one of the most interesting public speaking opportunities I’ve had in years. Over a two-week period, I taught four classes about how businesses are using social media to engage consumers and build their brands. My question about the students’ national origins helped open a discussion about social media trends around the world.
A student from China, for example, identified favorite social media channels that no one else had used. This prompted a larger discussion about the platforms students preferred, and whether they accessed them on computers, tablets or mobile devices. Although we didn’t calculate the results, their informal responses mirrored a statistic published in the annual “We Are Social” global digital snapshot, which showed that active mobile social media accounts had increased by 23 percent in a single year.
(Interestingly, only one student identified YouTube as a social media channel. The others just considered it “the way I watch TV.”)
Global trends were only one part of the conversation, however. The students, who were also consumers and working adults, had an intuitive understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the social world, even though they had never studied social media strategy.
They gave high marks to Southwest Airlines for its consistent online and off-line personality. “They’re always friendly and fun,” one student noted. “The minute you walk into their airport terminal, you see bright colors and smiling people, and their Twitter channel is the same. They really talk to you and make it fun.”
Starbucks also impressed them with its responsiveness to consumer ideas and comments, as illustrated by the MyStarbucksIdea platform, which lets consumers rate each other’s suggestions while the ideas are evaluated by the Starbucks team. Whatever the outcome, Starbucks lets consumers know whether they plan to implement an idea–and why. This approach allows the company to gain consumer insight at every stage of product development, while building brand loyalty with its customers.
But the students were also tough critics. They panned companies that posted stale news releases or ignored questions from the public. They also criticized a company that invited consumers to create videos about their stores without offering anything in return. “Why would anyone do that?” one student asked. “No one is that excited about a chain store.” But, the same students responded favorably when a company offered a prize–or made a charitable donation–to recognize high-quality consumer-created content. That felt like a fair exchange–and an authentic reason to support a brand.
Overall, students responded positively to brands that were interactive, creative, visual and authentic. They liked infographics and product information, but they really warmed to companies that showed a human face. The best brands offered both–solid information along with personality-rich content.
Those are just a few of the observations the students shared. The discussion showed the value of soliciting customer feedback on your social program. Ultimately, it’s customers like these students who determine what works and what doesn’t. They are our best teachers, and we shouldn’t forget it.