So much conversation around the importance of social media for business has focused on its role in marketing. How to engage customers with a brand on Twitter in a way that translates to new sales? How to capture a large Facebook fan base and then transform it into brand champions and paying customers? But a new index from Sprout Social, which provides social media engagement, publishing, and analytic tools, shows that social media's most exciting opportunity-and challenge-may be the provision of customer service.
The Sprout Social Index measures channel growth, brand responsiveness, and consumer behavior across more than 160 million inbound messages, across 20,000 brand profiles and fan pages. "For the initial report we focused on Facebook and Twitter because everyone is at least playing on some level on those platforms," says Andrew Caravella, Sprout's vice president of marketing. "The data, which is in aggregate, is meant to assess how brands are proactively and reactively caring for their customers using social media."
The index comprises two separate metrics: a consumer engagement index that measures the likelihood that a customer of a particular industry will communicate questions or complaints via social channels that, in the pre Social Media Era, would likely have been directed to a customer service center. Utilities, real estate, and consumer goods industries rate highest on the consumer engagement index, indicating that their customers are most likely to take to Twitter or Facebook with lauds and laments. Automotive, non-profit, and healthcare were the industries least likely to have that sort of engagement take place in social channels.
The brand engagement index measures the inverse: how responsive are industries to inbound messages from their customers sent via social media? Utilities, banking and finance, and automotive ranked high here, while government, real estate, and entertainment industries were decidedly less likely to engage with their customers on social media.
While the sheer growth of Twitter and FB's reach is impressive - the Sprout study cites growth of 20% of the collective user base of Twitter and Facebook in the past twelve months, to more than 1.4 billion users - it is the growth of the level of engagement where the real story lies. The Index shows a 175% increase in the number of messages requiring an answer or attention from a brand on those two platforms over the same time span. Caravella says that jump comes, at least in part, because brands are inviting those conversations. "Brands want it," he explains, "because they realize that there are brand-related conversations happening all over social media channels, and they want to be a part of them."
The most eye opening statistics in the study, however, are the one that measures what brands do with that increased level of consumer engagement. Sprout found that average brand response rates fell to below 20% during Q3 2013, and response times increased during 2013 from an average of 10.9 hours to 11.3 hours. As Sprout Social CEO Justyn Howard pointed out, "A 20% response rate to messages requiring attention means that four out of five consumer inquiries go unanswered. This would not be tolerated in traditional channels like phone and email and is not a sustainable practice."
So as the social media engagement story shifts rapidly to a customer service play, how can brands keep up? Sprout's report includes seven keys to improved customer care, from staffing for experience to streamlining departments and decoupling response times from a customer's perceived social influence. Caravella says that building for responsiveness is the most important practice. "You have to have the mentality that this is a two-way conversation," he says. "It's a strategic shift, but a foundational one."
As Caravella points out, "Everyone gets the same number of characters to communicate. For the first time, there is equal status between brands and the consumer."
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)