How Manufacturers Can Conquer the New Social Landscape

Nov. 3, 2011
Manufacturers that mistake social media as an entirely outbound process are finding themselves ill equipped to deal with the reality that it is a two-way street.

When asked if he'd listen to suggestions from fans about how to fix his struggling ball club, late California Angels Manager Gene Mauch said, "Feedback is like perfume. A little is great, but too much is poisonous." This is not unlike the sentiment I hear expressed by manufacturers merging onto the social-media superhighway.

Industry trends support that manufacturers are catching up to the digital revolution. But when they do, the "social" aspect of social media often takes these companies by surprise.

They find themselves in the position of the proverbial dog that's caught the car. For years, they wondered what their customers were thinking. After earnestly chasing that goal for decades, they now have their answer - and it's not as much fun as they thought it would be.

Manufacturers that mistake social media as an entirely outbound process are finding themselves ill equipped to deal with the reality that it is a two-way street. As feedback and inquiries stream in, they realize they've unwittingly asked their audience to tell them what they want or need when they aren't fully prepared to listen.

Historically, manufacturing has worked as a dictatorship. Can it function as a democracy?

Through trial and error, some manufacturers have successfully learned to use data gathered via social media to improve the quality of existing products while designing new ones, enhancing the customer experience, and staying current on changes in customers' purchasing behavior.

They've done this by formalizing the listening process. By consciously managing the act of social listening, manufacturers are turning what might have been an unwieldy problem into a treasure trove of invaluable data and a big competitive advantage.

Do We Have To?
Even though 81% of business-to-business companies use social networks, the manufacturing sector has been slow to adapt, for at least three reasons. First, they don't see a need to aggressively brand themselves as a business-to-consumer company would. Second, manufacturing is very distributed and complex --- one company might have thousands of parts that end up in hundreds of OEM products, so how can one message encompass them all? Finally, manufacturers intuitively believe most outside input will be unworkable by its nature, as customers don't understand the nuances of capacity, industrial buying and market research.

The landscape is changing, however, as an ever-increasing number of global manufacturers say they're expanding their social-media budgets. With growing competition from emerging markets, manufacturers are starting to look at social media as a way to gain global recognition for their businesses and stay close to their customer bases. They're also learning that what they hear via social media is just as important - if not more so - than what they say.

Smart manufacturers are adapting and reconfiguring their points of contact to include mediums like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, making engagement a more efficient process for their clients. They realize that not allowing customers to connect in ways they prefer is the equivalent of leaving a ringing phone unanswered.

The reality is that customers in all sectors are driving the train. If it isn't already, your manufacturing company's public face will soon be made up largely of the conversations people have about it online. You'd be foolish to not place a premium on listening in on the conversation.

So it's not a question of whether or not to join the movement, but how to do it effectively. This involves a systematized, integrated listening program, using the same discipline and rigor that supports innovation elsewhere in your company.

The good news is that social listening doesn't have to be a burden; in fact, manufacturers can use it to create revenue opportunities and more meaningfully connect with customers.

Listening Tools
Social media is a content exchange that not only allows you to publish information about your company or industry, but also gives you a chance to listen to your customers and prospects. A variety of free and paid social-listening tools can help you monitor the social-media landscape, responding to customers and taking in feedback in real time. They also provide you with a sense of the overall sentiment about your company and the key issues in your industry.

These tools don't simply let you know when someone has left a comment on your Facebook page. You might be surprised at the depth and breadth of the engagement they facilitate beyond the reach of your pages and websites:

  • They queue customer inquiries from around the web to ensure they are dealt with in an efficient manner. By listening to what people are saying about your company, you can respond to service issues quickly and zero in on potential problems before they escalate.
  • They enable discovery, giving you a deep dive into customer preferences and trends, as well as who is most influential in conversations about your industry. You can find out very specific demographic information on who is talking about your company. All of this allows you to adapt your communication strategy.
  • They reveal untapped sales opportunities. Listening tools allow for "proactive lead generation," where you can actively search for chances to sell and service customers. Customers very often express a need for (or the failure of) a product or service without directing that expression at the company. You can actively seek out these types of conversations.
  • They measure the dialogue about you and your industry, providing results that can help you implement profitable product and service changes.

Near term, formalized social listening should point to greater customer engagement: an increased number of conversations, better service, more sales discussions and an increase in actionable inquiries such as "I'd like to buy it, do you have any resellers in North Dakota" or "I bought it, but I'm having an issue with it." Long term, social listening should deliver quantifiable data that can lead to profitable anticipation and adaptation.

The Phases of Listening
Manufacturers generally find themselves in one of four phases of social listening:

Indifferent: Leadership is dubious about the importance of dialogue on the social web. The company is perpetually reactive to social media, nudged forward only by their competitors' adoption of best practices. All in all, there is little (if any) social listening taking place.

Dabbling: This is the discovery period. Companies in this phase typically have a semi-engaged presence on Facebook and Twitter. At first, they broadcast information only about their company. Eyes are gradually opened as they start to explore what's being said about their specific areas or topics of interest. Customers begin to interact via these new platforms, and the company realizes the process needs to be managed.

Functional: This is the phase where the light bulb comes on. The potential for all of this data is realized, a strategy is put in place around active listening programs, and feedback is responded to and tracked.
4. Integrated: Listening tools are employed, and social listening becomes a key aspect of business operations. The business is monitoring customer and channel-partner discussions across multiple platforms, reporting is happening, and results are integrated with other business analytics to improve the day-to-day operational decisions. Listening is a formalized, scaled and managed process. The results of social listening also become a key input in strategic decisions, including how the company views its product line and investment going forward.

Social listening provides a stable foundation for manufacturers to better understand customer intentions, needs and feedback - and turn those insights into profitable improvements. Many find that after they have extracted the key benefits of social listening, they can determine the value of Social Media Engagement (e.g. creating or joining social networking communities) or Social Media Optimization (e.g. integrating social media execution across the organization and across product lines). Other industries are pioneering the winning approaches for these more advanced capabilities, and manufacturers will find many leading practices they can adopt if applicable.

Again, manufacturers that are starting out on their social media journeys are at an advantage to some extent because they can leapfrog Phases 1-3, and go straight to "Integrated." Ultimately, a manufacturer with healthy listening skills boasts the following characteristics:

  • Every group is trained to leverage insights from customers that are using social media. Customers are allowed to engage on platforms where they feel most comfortable and their feedback is most transparent.
  • The use of social listening to lessen risk and avoid crisis becomes systematized


  • Measurement is shared with top management, and long-range decisions and investment are impacted by data derived from social listening.

As with all analytics, it's imperative for companies to realize that measuring is not the same as succeeding. There is very little benefit to be derived from obtaining and measuring things that don't generate profit. All listening efforts need to be oriented around the ultimate North Star: economic profit.

Yogi Berra, the great Yankee known for his classic double speak, said, "If you don't know where you're going, you mind wind up somewhere else." When a company isn't sure of its footing, this inbound wave of social data has the potential to shift it from a proactive stance to a reactive one. Measuring should never replace judgment. Strong leadership is essential around social listening. Responding to customer feedback should not make a company reactive in general. Allow the long run to unfold before making big decisions, and pay attention to not just what is being said, but who is saying it, and then weigh accordingly. When executed properly, social listening should accelerate manufacturers toward their goals, not distract from them.

Get Started
The takeaway here is that you can formalize a listening process at the inception of your social media strategy to take advantage of the window into your customers' thoughts it will provide. If you've not done so already, you should be developing a listening strategy to start you down the road toward "manufacturing democratically."

Matt Reilly leads the management consulting practice in North America for Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

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