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?
When you look at goodwill and how you get people to talk about a brand, the best way is creating a great experience, so when they walk into that branch, that person feels like someone was listening to them, helping them. That's the type of thing they're going to spread. Recently a Panera bread customer whose mother was dying went to a store to get her mother's favorite clam chowder. That wasn't a day they had clam chowder, but they made it for her anyway. She was so grateful, she posted on Facebook about it. Within a matter of hours, that post had 100,000 likes.
Another example involved a Publix supermarket, a mother with a child who didn't want to be there. The manager started playing with the child and the mother was so grateful, she posted a comment about it and got 80,000 likes in a short time. It's that offline meets online. That's why you have to think holistically to really win in social media.
BTN/AB: Every time there's a crisis, such as the recent distributed denial of service attacks against banks, people always say the banks should be communicating more over social media. But banks obviously don't want to broadcast every problem and they don't always have answers.
Whenever any crisis happens, the first question is, can I add value to this by providing information to my customers without creating detriment to others? If the answer is yes, then chances are they need to say something. At the same time, too many people say you have to say something on everything.
The second question is, can an answer come from within the community? Can it come from someone else? Would someone else be more believed than me? In certain situations, like some legal situations, there might be a lawyer that wants to chime in who understands the specifics. It would be better coming from him.
Then there's a trust factor, where do customers want to hear news from — do they want it from us as a company or from an individual? There's times when a message coming from an individual has more power than coming from the brand, even if it's someone internally.
Brands have to do a better job practicing these scenarios. There are thousands of possible scenarios, good bad and ugly. Who should be responding, how fast do you respond?
BTN/AB: You recently ran a campaign to bring civility to social media, to address the snarkiness that has crept into these conversations.
BTN/AB: How did that go?
It went better than I thought. It's still evolving. I've watched a lot of people in social unfriending people, getting frustrated by negative conversations, especially with the political campaigns. Politics is tough, everybody has their own view: "You're stupid if you think this." People don't want to be around that. People want to be surrounded by people who are positive.
People like to say that engaging in social is just like being at a cocktail party. But in reality, it hasn't been because at a cocktail party you might not say some of the things that are posted in social channels. We're starting to have that dialogue, there has to be civility.