How Citi's Frank Eliason Cuts Through the Noise on Twitter

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BusinessWeek once described Frank Eliason as "the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly the world."

At Comcast, he turned a vilified brand into a company with a sympathetic and helpful persona through his Twitter work at @comcastcares. Citi hired him in August 2010 to head up their customer-facing social media efforts; he was recently promoted to director of global social media at the bank.

We caught up with Eliason at the BAI Retail Delivery conference last week and asked him about the latest thinking in the ever-changing art and science of communicating effectively over social media.

Bank Technology News/American Banker: Some companies are focused on enforcing quotas on social media — employees must Tweet or Facebook post X number of times per day to try to popularize the brand. Is this an effective approach?

Eliason: That's the quest for ROI and for page views. But social media is mostly about the psychology of things, if someone's being forced to put something out there, there's no passion, it's just, "here's a link." If I'm passionate, I get interaction. But if I'm just Tweeting because someone told me to, I don't.

Now a lot of what's on Twitter is noise. Companies are saying it's all about content, they're putting the emphasis on content creation. But there's content everywhere. If you have a choice of 50 different jellies, you walk away. The next phase is about the people aspects. That presents a challenge to companies, placing more trust in the people.

BTN/AB: So maybe you have to let other people steer the ship.

That's correct and it's going to be your customers and your employees. The other key component is knowing who you really are, what are you about. It can't be a message here or there. It's got to be, here's who we are in everything.

BTN/AB: That must be hard at a company like Citi, which is not known for being fun loving and people friendly.

I'll disagree to some extent. The greatest part to Citi is the diverse nature of the organization. It's in 140 countries, it's got a lot of different people. That's something that in a social world, I'd love to see celebrated. That to me is huge value.

When you plot social strategy, in my view, a lot of times it starts with teaching your employees how to use social media not just for the company but also for themselves. At Citi, the global PR team created training for social media. We also have to make sure we have the right tools in place that will empower people to do those things. At the same time, they need to want to do it, not be forced to do it. Any time in social media I hear, "you, as an individual or a company, must do this," I cringe because it's usually wrong.

Does every company need to have a Facebook page? No. Ryanair received a post that said they must have a Facebook page, because people are ripping them apart. I thought no, that fits the brand image, it fits what they're about. Ryanair is a low cost airline, they're all about low cost, their CEO sometimes has interesting quotes about customers. But they know who they are. You don't have to agree with them or like them. Social is not about being liked.

BTN/AB: I thought to some extent it was about being liked. It's not?

What is the value of a like? The term has caused confusion among people. NBC during the Olympics had an #NBCfail hashtag. The number one complaint was that they delayed showing the opening ceremonies and people wanted to see it live. The business reality is, that saw the highest ratings since 1976. How does NBC make money as a business? Good ratings, good advertising dollars. You have to know what's key to your business.

BTN/AB: Is there a way to make social media more enjoyable for employees, make it something they would want to do?

You have to look at, what is the practice? In many companies, we block social media, why? You're worried about a lot of different things, for instance viruses. But people are connected now in more ways than ever - through laptops, tablets, smartphones, tethered PCs. How do you embrace it and make their lives easier? How do you make it important to them?

BTN/AB: What are some ways of generating good will in social media? You've done a tremendous amount of work in customer service, fixing people's problems. What about in other areas?

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