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The Next Social Imperative: A Manifesto

by Marcus Nelson  |  
November 19, 2013

The social industry should be ashamed of itself. Failed promise. Failed mission. #Fail. We must save ourselves—now.

Here’s what I mean. Three years ago, while I was still at, CEO Marc Benioff wrote “The Facebook Imperative.” It was a manifesto that urged enterprises to tap into the power of social media so that employees could more easily collaborate and share information across departments.

His point?

That such collaboration creates a hive of enterprise productivity focused on customer needs—driving sales. That single manifesto brilliantly encapsulated just how social media could transform business.

Benioff’s premise resonated with the industry—and kick-started the second generation of social media. No longer purely a medium for self-expression, it has become the predominant marketing channel.

In the years since Benioff wrote his manifesto, enterprises have become obsessed with connecting with customers via Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, as they then monitor sentiment and measure effectiveness.

As head of Salesforce’s social media efforts and strategy, I helped build Benioff’s social imperative. In my role, I applauded forward-thinking companies that set up and staffed “command centers,” so they could monitor and respond to comments they spotted about their brands. I helped customers harness social media as new marketing and ad channels. And I cheered as social media became integral to enterprise marketing.

And then things got ugly, as marketers went extreme.

I hate to say it, but the social-business industry has pushed crass commercialism to new levels aimed at getting customers to LIKE us, LOVE us and, above all, BUY from us.

And I went along with it.

Social Marketing Speak

When I founded Addvocate, I described it in marketing terms. Terms like “empower employees to be brand advocates” (or sometimes: “brand amplifiers”). Those phrases made me uneasy, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. And then it hit me: By adopting marketers’ mindset, I inadvertently implied that employees are tools for brands to wield on their behalf. I blame myself for not emphasizing what I always knew: Social media’s true utility—its fundamental reason for existence—is for building genuine connections.

That’s because social media is best used as a conduit for information, sentiment, support, and insight from anywhere within a company out to its customers—practically at the speed of thought. Yes, social enables enterprises to know what their customers are thinking and saying about them. But it also allows anyone—anywhere within the organization—to step in and answer customers’ questions and solve their problems. Equally important, social media can relay that interaction to customer service, alert R&D to product flaws, and inform the marketing folks of a potential problem to address.

Forget about hammering customers with corporate messages and ads. Studies prove that people trust others just like themselves. Consider: When Nielsen asked consumers which form of advertising they trust, 84% said they trust recommendations from people they know, and 68% said they believed opinions posted online.

It’s also interesting to see just who, inside a company, those consumers believe. The latest TrustBarometer from Edelman, for example, found that consumers trust a company’s rank and file workers—especially people with technical expertise—more than they trust top executives.

Emphasis on Empathy

Think about what it would mean when business processes run on top of social. Everything will change. People will become less self-involved because they know—and care—about their customers’ experiences. And that will create a culture of empathy that encourages everyone throughout the organization to connect with customers, contribute comments, solve problems, and safeguard the reputation of the enterprise. People would behave differently.

Here’s a story I recently heard that illustrates the point...

A family took their 6-year-old daughter to Disneyland where she bought a Minnie Mouse wallet. A few rides in, she started crying when she realized she’d lost her wallet. Naturally, the parents made a show of looking for it, but they all knew the chances of finding it were slim. A Disney employee took notice and came over to ask what the wallet looked like. “It’s red and has Minnie Mouse on the cover,” she said.

“I think I know where it is,” he said, leading the family to the gift shop, where he pulled a wallet from the counter and gave it to the little girl.

You can imagine how impressed the parents must have been—and not just because of the overt act of kindness. Disney had empowered its employees to go the extra mile for its customers. That’s the culture of empathy I’m talking about. This goes way beyond getting your employees to tweet for you. You need to give them the full support of the brand and empower them to turn their empathy into social actions on behalf of your customers.

Few companies already have this culture. But I’m convinced enterprise-wide empathy with the customer is critical for establishing authentic, meaningful lines of communication. With it, companies can truly humanize all customer interactions, influence customer sentiment, improve products, and burnish (or even salvage) a brand’s reputation.

And that’s why I founded Addvocate. I believe people want to talk to others like themselves—not to some company’s logo. Our platform enables people across the organization to opt in and use their own social networks to offer advice, solve problems, and become the human face of their brands. Notice I said “people,” who are every company’s greatest assets.

Our customers, investors, and market influencers tell me I have it right. Isn’t it time we reclaimed social media’s true mission of building genuine connections?

People are not tools to be wielded for crass commercialization. Companies need to think about, and simplify, how their greatest assets can reach out to customers. Connect them. Give them an outlet for goodwill and customer rapport. Empower everyone throughout the entire organization to react and respond to their best impulses.

This is our next cultural imperative: putting human empathy at the core of every customer interaction, and at any level of communication. We are not tools, so stop treating us as if we were. Empower us to build relationships, and to thrive on those connections. That is, after all, what humans do best.

And if that doesn’t translate into customer trust and loyalty, nothing will.

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Marcus Nelson has founded five successful startups. He is now the founder and chief executive officer at Addvocate, which helps companies humanize their brand experience by enabling all employees to engage with customers.

A recognized leader is social media marketing, Marcus holds a patent for technology that determines someone’s brand influence, wrote the original specifications and helped build the prototype of Salesforce Chatter, and is an expert in user-experience design.

Twitter: @addvocate

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  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Tue Nov 19, 2013 via blog

    Great piece, Marcus. This was exactly the reason I left big corporate America. When we start talking about customers as "hits, targets, and objects," (and that always made me squirm) we've missed the point. We've dehumanized them as brand puppets (OK,*that* is a visual! Ha!). The whole point of great customer service is to put people first. A culture that cares about people doesn't talk about people as tools (and that includes employees as well as customers, too). Create great experiences that help people and make their lives better, and the bonus: some will talk about you. There is no short-cut to advocacy. It takes empathy - that's the whole point behind human-centered design/design thinking.
    Amen, brother. Preach it!

  • by Wendy Cobrda Tue Nov 19, 2013 via blog

    You nailed it, Marcus.

    I spent the better part of the last 15 years working for myself and in a start up environment with partners.

    I've met the most amazing people through social media and I've developed even stronger relationships with people who I may have met once in person, but really got to know through their posts and commentary. We've celebrated marriages, new jobs, and family accomplishments -- and commiserated when things weren't going well -- budget cuts, job losses, illness and yes, even death.

    I recently had the great fortune to join a company which helps people connect to the information they need most, when and where they need it. We work with public libraries. My team loves reaching out to the people behind the desks -- to celebrate them and their contributions.

    You can't do that if you take on the tone of a "professional poster." I encourage my team, my whole company actually, to listen, get into conversations and make friends -- without an agenda. I think we can be genuinely interested by participating, not just skimming or broadcasting -- and that does translate to better customer service, products that solve real problems, and messages that resonate with people who want to do business with us because we are who we say we are.

  • by Davina K. Brewer Tue Nov 19, 2013 via blog

    We are so in-tune w/ much of our social thinking Marcus - so let me get my one quibble out of the way. I'm weary when anyone uses conduit metaphors when describing what we do. Communications in all its glory – art/design, PR and social, marketing, all forms of writing, music, etc. etc. – isn't so cut and dry as "send it out, people will get it - and 'get' it." It's complex, always reliant upon delivery, acceptance, active participation on the part of the recipient to read/listen, think, understand, comprehend, much less act upon; and that mileage will always vary.

    That said, LOVE the Disney example. It highlights so much of this on so many levels - PR, good HR and ER as good CRM, good SM. Disney doesn't want something like a lost wallet to create a negative guest experience; by empowering their team, by using social and PR and HR to foster that culture, they not only do right by the guest they've created this story of experience that's shared. That is brand value, that is reputation. As you say - not crappy commercialization, but true connections across so many levels. FWIW.

  • by Sondra Nelson Tue Nov 19, 2013 via blog

    Gosh, what a lot of good stuff rolled into one post. Mind if I break it down?

    1. In Search of Excellence. This book's concept was of having a workforce who feels empowered and who cares about the customers. It's the basis for our company but achieving it day-in and day-out is a lot more complicated than saying that we want it to happen.

    2. Social media and brand promotion has run amuck. Yes it has. But this is not new and is not clearly any worse in this decade than an other. True, there are more media and many of them are dominated by individuals, not by high priced ads. So it's different.

  • by Camilla Wed Nov 20, 2013 via blog

    I actually think this is a story about brand rather than social. Social media is the channel for a brand. That may sound like marketing-speak but hear me out. You summed it up perfectly when you said "Disney had empowered its employees to go the extra mile for its customers." When a brand is carefully considered to express a personality, then the expression of that brand will resonate throughout the organization. A well executed brand development plan will empower employees, as in the case of Disney. For social media this means that employees are empowered to express a personality and interact with customers more effectively. If the brand is undeveloped and unclear to employees then it tend to be stuffy and dry without personality. It is also inconsistent because each employee will interpret it in their own way. This will make any communication, including social media conversations, sound stilted and false.

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