Despite these challenges, some companies have taken a novel approach. Consider AstraZeneca's @AZhelps, a Twitter account that plays a unique hybrid corporate-brand role that exists in addition to @AstraZenecaUS, the company's public relations and news account. Twitter is proactively monitored for brand mentions on behalf of all AZ products. Once located, @AZhelps responds to the tweet author with a PRC-approved response directing the author to call the patient safety 800-number.
While PR and customer service (such as @AZhelps) are important functions in social media, they are largely applicable only to the corporate side of companies. For brands, social media presents a different challenge altogether. At its core, social media is a conversation that takes place among people in order to derive value from one another. For a brand to take part in this conversation in a meaningful way, it's essential that the brand first understands the conversation that is already taking place.
Consider an analogy: It's your first day at a new high school. You want other kids to like you and talk to you. You want to be part of the "in" crowd and you want to make a good first impression. You see a group standing together, and you walk up to join the conversation. Now, there are several ways you could do this, but only one of them will be beneficial for your social life.
You could walk up to the group without introducing yourself, start talking about a topic that's not relevant to them or the conversation already taking place, refuse to respond to any comments or questions, and then ask them to be your fan. Seems silly, right? There are a whole slew of brands out there, and a disproportionate number in the pharmaceutical sphere, that have exhibited this precise behavior and then been surprised at the backlash in social media or the lack of fan requests and followers.
Consider a company that opens a Twitter account, provides no information as to why the brand is there, disables the option to comment or follow the brand, doesn't respond to any other conversation going on around them, and then proceeds to blast messaging that has little relevance to anyone but the brand. There are countless examples like this out there on Twitter and Facebook.
Now, if you wanted to actually make some friends in this scenario, you would likely walk up to the conversation, introduce yourself, and then listen. Really listen. To absorb the nuances of the conversation and identify who the popular kids (read: thought leaders) are on each topic. You might then begin to add valuable on-topic commentary to the existing conversation. Finally, after you've integrated yourself into the group and have proven to be a knowledgeable and considerate participant, you'll earn the right to introduce your own topic of conversation as long as it's interesting your friends. The group will likely find it relevant and engage with you. They might even tell their other friends about you.
Given this scenario, it's important to ensure that you're ready to listen and respond to what your customers have to say, both positive and negative, before embarking into the world of social media. The organization should be prepared to devote resources in the form of time, financing, and personnel to support social media efforts. It also means modifying the traditionally-sluggish regulatory process that will allow you to respond to customers in the short time frame that is demanded in social media.
Finally, the most important thing to remember about engaging with your customers through social media is that it's about them, not your brand. Be transparent and responsive, and provide frequently updated content that your customers truly value, not simply material that supports your brand messaging. This is not the place for push marketing. Listen first, and ensure that you're planning to participate in social media because your customers want you there and because you can provide value to the ongoing conversation, not because it's the "shiny new object" of the moment.