Cube Conversation: We talk social media/digital engagement with Rich Baker

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[tweetmeme]I haven’t done one of these for a while. For those not familiar with it, Cube Conversations is a series of ‘conversations’ I have with interesting people in the industry. That could be the design or architecture industry, or those that work in pr, marketing or social media.

This time round I chat to Rich Baker who, in his own words, is an ‘Analogue/Digital Engagement Evangelist and Consultant’. Rich was also General Manager, Liverpool and North Wales, at Virgin Trains, where he was a huge part of integrating social media activities into the strategy. I wanted to get his thoughts on how consumers engage with brands through social media and, in particular, the issue brands have internally when they separate the marketing/pr and customer service functions.

GW: When did you make the move from traditional methods to the use of digital media for reputation management, crisis comms and customer service at Vigin Trains and what prompted this move?

RB: I was part of a cross functional team that led regional external relationships. A significant part of my role was to build relationships with stakeholders and businesses in the region. I worked in partnership with our Communications Team, building offline relationships through events, sponsorship and other more traditional methods. Initially my strategy was to use social media to support my offline relationship building. It became much more as I understood the power of the medium, and customers and stakeholders alike began responding very favourably to my work.

GW: As we’ve seen with the likes of Eurostar, customers don’t separate the marketing and pr function with customer service when engaging with brands. However there seems to be a gap, internally, between the use of social media channels for these two areas. Was this your experience at Virgin and how did you manage it?

RB: You are right – when customers want to talk to a company they usually want a response from a customer service department, not marketing. In my experience, the problem is an accidental one; in their defence, marketing departments were generally the first to realise the potential for social media when Facebook, YouTube etc appeared. Mistakes happen when the marketers treat communication channels, like Twitter, as a broadcast channel.

I had a very good relationship with both the Communications and Marketing teams in Virgin and was a trusted member of the senior team. As a result I was able to ‘bridge that gap’. My strategy was to use Twitter as a relationship channel that used Service, PR and Marketing to build relationships.

GW: How can businesses manage this internal gap to ensure there is one clear channel engaging with customers, whether it be a marketing or customer service voice?

RB: It depends on the size and structure of the business. I help companies and organisations understand how their internal structure and relationships can help support external relationships. It requires trust, a willingness to change and senior level buy-in.

GW: What were the key lessons you learned in moving Virgin from traditional to digital comms?

RB: Well, I don’t think Virgin Trains have moved from traditional to digital communications. People don’t want an either/or approach – they want something that works for them at the time. Digital works well (and could work better) in the Rail Industry because customers are geographically displaced when they use the product and require support. Virgin uses both, depending on the needs of customers, and rightly so.

GW: What results did you see after switching to digital communications at Virgin and what was the timeframe?

RB: It took around two months for people to understand internally and externally that my work was having some benefit. Remember this was around nine months ago – which is a long time ago in the digital world!

GW: Do you believe that social media is a comms tool that can be used by all businesses?

Good question! Yes, but not necessarily externally. I have led employee engagement programmes internally and I think change programmes could benefit from some of the social media tools.

GW: What advice would you give any business looking to integrate social media into the mix?

RB: Well for a start they should talk to people like you and me! It’s important for businesses to understand this is not a ‘flash in the pan’ and things won’t go back to the way they were. Recessions are an important time for businesses to innovate and the introduction of social media enables a company to differentiate. It’s this that ensures survival when times are tough.

GW: Finally, what are the social media trends for 2010?

RB: Firstly, I think we should move away from calling it ‘social media’ and instead think of it as ‘digital engagement’. There is an implication in the term ‘social media’ that it is just a bit of fun and not the communication revolution it is.

In 2010 companies will rush into the use of social media and make mistakes – but that’s okay. Everyone benefits when companies make mistakes with engagement.

User Generated Content will have a big impact on all broadcast and media industries. Apple/Google/Amazon will commercialise news again and this will level the playing field for participants. Facebook and Twitter will begin to fight it out for users as both will adopt similar tools and functionality.

Collaboration online will increase as fuel prices rise leading to the development of tools like Google Wave and Huddle. The line between TV and Internet will blur as people demand an more integrated solution.

Generation Y will continue to be peer oriented and reject ‘brand loyalty’ if it doesn’t engage with them on their terms.

Finally, as digital engagement becomes an integrated part of society new business models will be drawn that blur the line between internal and external customers.

Thanks for your questions Gemma – I don’t profess to have all the answers and would love to know what your readers think!


If you have any questions or comments for Rich, please fill the in below. I’ll make sure he’s aware of them so that he can respond.

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  1. chris hall says:

    V.interesting chat guys.

    Rich’s experience, insight & knowledge are a thought-provoking and interesting read.

    I take your point Rich about the term ‘social media’ and a better term would be ‘digital engagement’. In reality this is where it will go and probably a term which will better suit what’s going on. The reality is that the world is still trying to get its head around the social media revolution. Once we’ve all start to demonstrate how this will benefit them and engage with them we’ll be able to explain and nurture a world of ‘digital engagement’.

  2. Rich Baker says:

    Great point Chris – So should we stop referring to it as ‘social media’ now then? And what will that mean for SEO? Who will jump first? 😉

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

  3. Sophia says:

    Thanks very much for this interesting post and the reminder that now is the time to be investing in innovation and getting ahead of the game.

  4. Thanks for more information about SEO tools.The process of getting your website to the top of the search engines. Its also good to know about this SEO tool.Thank you.

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