Mobile companies that have traditionally dominated the high street are now making moves into the online arena, with a growing presence on social media sites.
Networks, manufacturers and independent retailers are all cashing in on the growing phenomenon of social networking as a marketing and customer ?service opportunity that is free, and easy to manage.
Facebook, YouTube, Bebo, MySpace and Twitter, already familiar household names, are becoming more widely used on mobile platforms. From INQ’s ‘social networking’ phones to Orange’s ‘Social Life’ – a service that integrates social networks together for ease of use for consumers – mobile companies are realising that this platform is a crucial area for their business. As an industry based on communication, the mobile sector needs to jump on this new craze.
Sites such as Twitter have the power to generate masses of analysis, hype and criticism towards companies. Social networks allow mobile companies to channel an area where they can see and hear their own customers’, as well as rival customers’, complaints. Ultimately, this could reduce churn, but in a fiercely competitive industry, the long-term repercussions are yet to be seen.
The term ‘social networking’ was only added to the English Oxford Dictionary in March 2009 but over the past three or four years, vast numbers of people have bought into the online phenomenon. Among one of the most popular is Facebook, which recently announced it had 300 million active users.
The question for the mobile industry will be whether the time and effort put into using the newest form of communication will be profitable. Will it actually provide any real benefit in the long term?
A recent survey carried out across social networking sites and blogs by Kaizo, a ‘PR and word of mouth’ consultancy, indicated that despite a web presence, the positive perceptions of mobile brands online have fallen.
Kaizo’s MD, Rohdri Harries, says: ‘Mobile now has an inherent link with the web and social media. Brands need to be extremely active, engaging in conversations with customers that add value to the brand experience.
‘Getting involved in the conversation online will no doubt have a long-term benefit in terms of offline word of mouth, brand loyalty and ultimately sales.’
Many major players in the industry have said that brand loyalty and trust are the current focus of their activities.
Vodafone started a Twitter account three months ago, and has so far gained 4,000 followers. The network has a team monitoring it from 6am until 10pm every day.
Vodafone’s head of web relations, Jakub Hrabovsky, says having a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is ‘a logical thing to do’. He adds: ‘Customers have an opportunity to engage with the brand and talk to us and each other – we’re listening and participating in the debate. If you do things right in social media the rewards are instant and customers leave with a sense of satisfaction.’
However, despite a wide demographic of people using the sites and a high frequency of visitors, it seems mobile companies are reluctant to do ?a ‘hard sell’ through social media. A range of strategies are being implemented by mobile networks.
For example, an Orange spokesman says: ‘We tend to give away things and ?only use it as a brand outreach mechanism. It is so important and so powerful because it is where everybody is. Research shows that if you try to sell them things then they turn off.’
3 is also investing heavily in interactive communication and runs a website, called ‘3 mobile buzz’, where the network is aggregating the ‘best of the conversation out there’.
3’s head of consumer PR, Sarah Pope, says: ‘3 is planning a couple of new Twitter feeds and the launch of a company blog before the end of 2009. One will be focused on customer service and another will be retail and sales focused with time limited offers.
‘Social networking tools are a great way to show off personalities within the company. We are currently trialling a scheme where new staffers can talk about their experience on Twitter.’
‘Real time’ interaction
O2 CEO Ronan Dunne and Carphone Warehouse CEO Andrew Harrison have both raised the issue of consumers trusting the industry over the last few months. The ‘real time’ element of customers being able to interact with the company through sites such as Twitter seems to be one of the most attractive features of social media.
Some companies are taking this into their own hands. Last month, Phones 4u launched its own online consumer panel, the uBar. The service aims to create a space for real time feedback, providing the retailer with deeper insight into what their customers want and need.
Phones 4u head of customer insight Graeme Ford said at the time of the launch: ‘The uBar puts power into the hands of our customers, giving them a voice and a platform with which to tell us what we’re doing well, and more importantly what we could do better.’
Networks and retailers have an interest in building a loyal customer base. The longer a person stays with that company, the more revenue they are likely to get out of them. However, even manufacturers and distributors are using social networking to communicate.
Manufacturers are providing more ways of accessing social networking sites through handsets, so the two are already inextricably linked.
A spokesperson for LG says: ‘Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information. For LG, it is very important to invest time in these sites as social networking keeps on growing.’
For international companies with dedicated marketing teams and strategies, the use of the sites is a ‘no brainer’. But making them work involves time, budgets and people, which companies such as independent retailers and distributors might not have in abundance.
However, for some, the benefit of having an online presence and an ‘easy’ platform to communicate on outweighs the obstacles.
Fonehouse operations director Stuart Ferguson says: ‘Fonehouse is on Twitter and Facebook and they are part of the revamped website. We are using Facebook to advertise and Twitter to raise the profile of Fonehouse.
‘It is not something that comes overnight, but we hope people will click through to the site via social networking.
?The arena naturally lends itself to the people we are trying to reach.’
Distributor HSC currently has two Twitter accounts and a blog aimed at dealers and partners. It will be monitoring usage and how to integrate the sites with the business.
HSC’s marketing manager, Theresa Williams, says: ‘The success of these things is how we use them. We view it as a resource that allows us to provide relevant content.
‘Twitter is so easy to use and monitor, we can use it as a bulletin board. The industry is changing so I think it’s perfect.’
Across the industry, there are definite signs that businesses believe social networking is worth the time and effort. But they are also cautious – it is a new practice that radically departs from the usual strategy of advertising at people, and the benefits are yet to be quantified.
Meanwhile, the companies will be hoping that by using Twitter – and allowing complaints to be broadcast across the world – it may prove that negative publicity can be good publicity.