David Meerman Scott and the Real-Time Customer Relationship

November 10, 2010

Marketing guru David Meerman Scott credits the Grateful Dead, and their long-standing policy of letting audience members record their concerts, with first turning him onto the possibilities of “real-time” marketing.  The author of the BusinessWeek bestseller “Real Time Marketing & PR” spoke with Zengage about the necessity for companies to use social media, and why those that don’t are making a big mistake.

You say you worked in a “real-time” work environment on Wall Street. What did that teach you?

I worked on a bond trading desk. That was all about “instantaneous.” If there was something in the news, or movement in another marketplace, like London, traders would see it instantaneously, and it would tell you what to do.  I think you can apply those ideas to any business. Any business today can react instantaneously, but very few do. Most still respond in a particular and plodding kind of way.

What made you realize the importance of “real-time” response?

I’ve been thinking about it my entire career, but it probably manifested more in the past 5 years. I started my blog in 2004. I saw that people react instantaneously, and then Twitter multiplied this a lot because it was suddenly really easy to do so.  There are opportunities everywhere. The 33 Chilean miners who were rescued, when they surfaced they were wearing Oakley sunglasses, because Oakley donated them. Over a billion people watching got to see the miners wearing Oakley sunglasses that sell for $180 apiece.  Oakley didn’t promote that, but then we bloggers and social media people talked about it, and did their marketing and promotion for them.

I’ve heard you talk about Dave Carroll and his “United Breaks Guitars” song as an example of what and what not to do.

Dave Carroll, a musician with Sons of Maxwell, had his checked guitar broken by United Airlines. He tried for nearly a year to get compensation and when United said “No,” he told them he was going to write a series of songs about it. The first one took off quickly when bloggers like me talked about it, and even more when the mainstream media picked up on it. When Carroll started getting flooded with media requests, he enlisted his family to handle them, booking talks with reporters and print interviews. He drove the Youtube views, because he focused on real-time response.

I thought the most ingenious part of the story was how tangential and third-party companies – Taylor guitars, and a guitar case company –  jumped into the fray.

In his song, Carroll mentioned it was a Taylor guitar.  Bob Taylor, the CEO, had a real-time opportunity. With so many people focused on broken guitars, he made a Youtube video explaining how to protect your guitar on an airplane, citing TSA regulations, and it generated nearly half a million viewers.

Calton guitar cases recognized an opportunity as well, and reached out to Carroll, and within days came out with a “Dave Carroll Signature Guitar Case,” which was just a re-branded case. They posted a link from Dave’s site to their own. Those were examples of people who realized their moment was right now. Even a week or two later would’ve been too late.

You said United did nothing to respond and that that was a mistake.

The whole world was plugged into how United breaks guitars and they did nothing. It was a chance to join the dialogue. I suspect they were afraid of legal ramifications if they put anything out. But they could’ve, for example, posted a humorous video on Youtube on what happens in the baggage handling process, narrated by the chief baggage handler at O’Hare, without admitting liability.  It was a chance to be seen as human.

Isn’t there a danger that, by reacting to every bubble out there, a company loses track of the bigger picture, or control of their corporate image?

I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Facebook has 500 million users. There are millions more on Twitter. So not engaging in real-time is a fundamental error, because it says you’re not paying attention to your customers in the way they want to be paid attention to. You can still do branding, traditional advertising, maintain your corporate image.

Is there any evidence that it’s hurt United’s business in the long run?

When 9 million people have seen a video that your company breaks guitars, I think it harms the brand.  And when you don’t engage with hundreds of bloggers, it does so as well. People come away thinking “Oh, I’m not even going to bother contacting United. They’re not going to respond.”

You’ve heard the expression “A lie can travel around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants.”  Given that, and that people are less likely to pay attention to a “corporate response” how can companies realistically level the playing field?

People are very tolerant when companies respond like human beings. The response should be in the same media that the original comments appeared in. If it appeared in a blog, respond in a blog. If it was a Youtube video, do a Youtube video. Every company has incredibly creative people. The problem is when you have a hierarchical organization that needs 18 levels of approval. It requires a change in mindset. You can get something out literally in a day. If United had done a well-done response, bloggers like me would’ve reported it, and everyone would be saying “Hey, look. Here’s how United responded.”

It’s been said that one bad ‘Yelp’ review can be a killer.  How can companies respond effectively to Twitter and Yelp and a million other things that are out there?

Bad reviews aren’t necessarily harmful. People sometimes don’t trust restaurant reviews that are all five stars. A bad review is a good opportunity: you can learn something from it; it enhances the credibility of all the positive reviews. Organizations that engage customers in these forums tend to draw more people who engage back with them.

What do you see as the next wave of social media?

More companies are going to realize this stuff is real. In 1984, many businesses dismissed personal computers, and didn’t allow them. Twenty years later, the same thing happened with email. People said employees are going to give away company secrets. It’s happening now again with social media: people need to realize this is real.

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