Social media experts will tell you, and they’ll make a pretty good case too, that it is the golden key to unlocking meaningful customer relationships and the gateway to surprising and delighting them over time. So how does social media do this? Well, all it takes is to listen, be part of the conversation, curate great content, run native advertisements, and oh yeah, be transparent and authentic. Done and done.

Well, wrong and wrong.

Social media isn’t going to save your business nor is it going to make it. This may sound commonsensical, but to succeed in business takes much more than a Facebook or Twitter account. Hostess baked over 400,000 likes on Facebook and yet the iconic American brand is now shut down. Even small businesses are not immune to the real world. According to the SBA, over 50% of small businesses fail in the first five years. Social media isn’t saving those businesses either.

Michael Ames, author of Small Business Management, assembled the top 8 reasons that contribute to small business failure and you’ll notice not embracing social media isn’t one of the contributors:

1. Lack of experience

2. Insufficient capital (money)

3. Poor location

4. Poor inventory management

5. Over-investment in fixed assets

6. Poor credit arrangements

7. Personal use of business funds

8. Unexpected growth

From experience, there are two other ingredients that serve as harbingers to the future of any business, under-scoping or underestimating sales and marketing and underemphasizing product quality and customer experiences.

In any one of these scenarios, social media is not your saving grace—regardless of business size, number of followers, or however many viral videos you’ve introduced.

Am I saying that social media is useless?


It is, after all, where connected consumers are spending a significant amount of time these days. Nielsen recently found that Americans spend 121 billion minutes per month in social networks, which is significantly up from 88 billion just one year ago.

I do believe that many experts are, however, taking their eye off of the ball in the name of social media. But, success takes design, intent, and the relentless pursuit of opportunities even when they are elusive.  As a digital analyst and also an entrepreneur and investor, I’ve learned that technology is always going to introduce new channels for engagement. And, that’s a good thing. But they are not in themselves channels for necromancy. The ability to surprise and delight customers starts with the ability to understand how to exceed expectations. Even before that, it takes an understanding of what expectations are and where they’re met or missed.

So, here’s where social media can help.

Listening with Intent

Listening is among the most valuable ways to use social media for business relevance and ultimately success. However, value depends on the questions you choose to ask. For example, in addition to asking, “What are people saying about me or my competitors,” also ask, “What are people saying or seeking to improve what they’re doing today?” It’s the difference between information and insight and also listening to and hearing customers in a way that inspires innovation or iteration.

Designing the Experience

To deliver exceptional customer experiences takes experience design. You have to articulate, thoughtfully, what you want people to feel, say, and share. This is more than defining differentiators and value propositions. Businesses must think through how products and services evoke the original inspiration for starting or joining a company and the ongoing aspirations necessary to exceed expectations in the future. Social media then represents a series of open windows to engage customers during each and every moment of truth before, during, and after transactions to reinforce experiences and desired sentiment. Think marketing, sales, service, support, and word of mouth.

Paying It Forward

If social media is about conversations, you can bet that much of it is based on people asking questions. People are often looking for answers or direction. Rather than “Googling It,” it’s easier to ask those you trust. In this economy where trust is fleeting and transparency is elusive, there’s a tremendous opportunity to become the resource in your community. Don’t sell…instead; sell through the art of reciprocity. Customers feel a sense of appreciation for those who help and provide value.

The Power to Tell

As my good friend Peter Guber says, storytelling helps people align with your mission through aspirations or solutions. Don’t sell just on price or features. Make your customers the hero by helping them see what they can accomplish simply by aligning with you. If you use social media, don’t just post questions, polls, or random pictures; instead unleash a gravity that pulls customers to you because they can clearly see that you “get” them and the things they struggle or hope to accomplish with or without you.

These are just a few ways to think about social media. But, there are many, many other initiatives that you can consider that deliver value during each moment of truth. You have to consider though, that social media represents a series of new channels that complement other avenues that define your digital and real-world opportunities.

What do you think? How else can social media help businesses contribute to business success while helping foster customer and employee relationships and experiences?


Brian Solis is the author of the new book, The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.