There has been a lot of noise about social media and its role in customer acquisition and retention. So much, in fact, that it's easy for manufacturing executives to relegate all social media activity to the marketing department.
That's understandable. After all, most of the case studies on social media have focused exclusively on marketing innovations-and particularly on consumer marketing.
But social media is quickly becoming a transformative force across manufacturing enterprises. It's enabling departments such as customer support, product development, sales and compliance management to gain access to accurate, real-time and actionable intelligence that would have been impossible to capture just a few short years ago.
Here are some examples of how manufacturers are leveraging social media to bolster competitive advantage, reduce costs and improve regulatory compliance.
#1: Customer Relationships
Traditionally, ERP and CRM systems pushed out information to customers about products, services and promotions through a single channel. But that one-way approach to communications is quickly changing. According to Forrester Research, 91% of business-to-business decision makers are now taking part in social media, leading many business-to-business companies to realize the importance of establishing a healthy two-way exchange with customers and prospects.
By integrating a social media component into their ERP and CRM backbones, companies are initiating healthy dialogue on satisfaction levels and brand loyalty across multiple customer touch points. Furthermore, by assisting more customers via social media, these companies are reducing customer support costs and improving response to customer issues. Not only does this approach offer less time-intensive options for support teams, but also social media also creates an environment where customers help each other while allowing the manufacturer to identify problematic issues faster.
Computer manufacturer Dell is one of the masters in this area. The company excels at monitoring social media sites for emerging product problems. As soon any issue hits a trigger point, Dell immediately assigns a team to review, fix and roll out a solution before it escalates and is picked up by bloggers and the press. ("How to Succeed with Social Media: A Brian Solis Interview.")
#2: Product Design and Development
Manufacturers are getting closer to their customers and suppliers by moving their traditional user groups and advisory panels online. By integrating social media practices into the product lifecycle, product managers have a chance to communicate with a greater percentage of their existing and prospective customers for feedback and requirements definition.
Additionally, social media monitoring tools enable companies to hear what customers, prospects and other influencers are saying about their products in real time. This provides product managers and design teams with invaluable intelligence to better respond to shifts in the marketplace.
For instance, the Financial Times recently reported that some auto manufacturers are carefully monitoring social media to get a better sense of how consumer attitudes toward green technology are evolving. Because of the long development cycles for new models, these companies are looking for an accurate read of younger generations' attitudes and values, since these groups will represent their core customers in 10 or 15 years. ("Strategic Planning: Look Hard and Social Media May Yield Good Ideas.")
#3: Competitive Intelligence Monitoring
Today, the level and detail of competitive information available online is mind-blowing. Blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are brimming with detailed commentary, complaints and discussions about competitors. Not surprisingly, 33% of companies in a 2009 Hoovers survey indicated that they use social media to gather competitive intelligence.("Social Media: The Pathway Toward Gaining Competitive Advantage.")
While it may make sense to invest in a robust social media monitoring service, manufacturers can begin gleaning invaluable information with very simple tools such as a list of search terms, Google Alerts, and a basic RSS reader. Start by monitoring popular keywords within your industry. Also, set Google alerts for all your competitors and their top products. Finally, create similar alerts for sites such as Twitter ("Twilert" is a popular tool for this.) so you can get a better feel for what's being said about the competition.
#4: Building a Knowledge Base
As baby boomers continue to reach retirement age, a big challenge for manufacturers today is the loss of talent. To avoid a dangerous knowledge gap, some companies are using wikis to capture the knowledge of the best and brightest employees. This format is an effective way to transfer knowledge in a more systematic way. Wikis can stand alone or be integrated with other software tools to ensure that the knowledge is available where and when it's needed.
Networking equipment manufacturer Cisco has taken this idea to a new level with its Specialist Optimization and Results (SOAR) initiative. SOAR brings together the company's vast internal knowledge base in one location and can be easily accessed by account managers to troubleshoot and solve equipment problems.
But what makes SOAR truly unique is that it also extracts information from external discussion forums and virtual experts. As a result, Cisco product specialists are saving an average of 17 hours a week, boosting their productivity by 22% and reducing travel expenses-all of which is translating into annual savings of $5 million for the company.("5 Ways Companies Are Using Social Media to Lower Costs.")
#5: Improved Regulatory Compliance
Heavily regulated manufacturers can also use social media to streamline the information flow of integrated business processes. Through links to social media communities of regulatory content and support, manufacturers can enjoy process improvements in conjunction with employee feedback to make the process of reporting more cost effective.
Additionally, in the event of a product recall, manufacturers can manage the outbound communication more effectively by reaching a broader audience more quickly. They can also mitigate risk through timely communication and limit the exposure to brand erosion. And, through specialized tools, they can enable more efficient categorization of social media conversations in order to improve root-cause analysis and tackle problems faster.
Naturally, as social media communications continue to increase in these regulated industries, companies will need to adopt systems that can capture, classify and manage this information like any other electronic business record.
No Silver Bullet
Social media won't single-handedly build a relationship or take your business to the next level. As with any other technology, you have to be willing to integrate these tools into your business processes.
Just as important, you have to be selective as to where you put your efforts and resources. Social media success doesn't come from blindly following the crowd. It comes from leveraging these tools in ways that make the most sense for your particular business.
Ehab Samy is Director of Product Management for CDC Software, a hybrid enterprise software provider of on-premise and cloud deployments.
Interested in information related to this topic? Subscribe to our weekly Value-chain eNewsletter.