Marketing goes viral

Q: We’ve been trying to find a way to improve communication with our customers, but neither our website nor our Facebook page is producing results. What would you suggest? – Billy Loaiza Rivera, Medellin, Colombia

A: This is a question keeping many chief executives and company founders awake at night as they struggle to keep up with rapid changes in the digital world. The swift rise of new communication channels such as Facebook and Twitter have caused many executives to reassess how they stay in touch with their customers, with employees and, increasingly, with the media itself.

Companies’ relationships with their customers have suddenly changed. People no longer want to be sold to; they want companies to help them find an informed way to buy the right product or service at the right price. They still watch ads, but often online rather than on TV, and they’re much more likely to view ads that friends have recommended. When something goes wrong with a product, they want to be able to reach the company instantly, and they expect quick solutions.

How companies adapt to this energetic and sometimes chaotic world will define their future success. The website, Facebook page, blog and Twitter feed are no longer add-ons to a business’s communication budget: They should be central to its marketing strategy, and used in coordination with other marketing efforts.

As a first step in addressing your problem, make sure that your site is set up not just to handle transactions, but also for communication – and that when customers leave comments or send e-mails, your team always follows up. Look at every contact as an opportunity to build stronger relationships with your customers. DIn the past, I would ask Virgin customers to write to me with problems or ideas, and I often called people to talk about the problems that came up. Neil Berkett, the chief executive of Virgin Media, our U.K. cable and telecom group, recently told me that he gets at least 20 to 30 e-mails a day from customers, and he tries to respond with a brief, direct note within hours.

The rise of social media has presented some exciting challenges to the status quo and caused us to question our usual ways of doing business. When we launched a new global ad for Virgin Atlantic on TV and in theatres – full of humour, fun and with a touch of glamour – the ad also started to generate a big following online. To succeed, such efforts must be supported from the top. David Cush, CEO of Virgin America’s social media team is made up of 20-somethings who have been selected to run the online services. David says they have been given broad guidelines and then let loose.

These employees, who were “born digital,” have placed Facebook and Twitter at the centre of the company’s communication strategy, capturing the Virgin spirit online. To succeed, entrepreneurs and business leaders must look at this rapidly changing world through a different lens; by working with your online sites, services and teams, you can transform these challenges into opportunities.