Social Media: Does it Drive Social Responsibility?

At Telono, a Swiss-based UX consultancy,  we have always been interested in the concept of trust as an essential part of the online experience. When customers interact and transact with brands online, they need to see elements that communicate that the responsible parties owning the site are worthy of their trust.

In usability testing, one collects both quantitative and qualitative data that often gives us an understanding of different attitudes or values of groups or cultures.

While doing some international testing on a financial services website, we noticed that countries that saw significant bank failures, bailouts and corporate irresponsibility paid keen attention to the trust components of the brand we were testing. It was common for people from the United States and Great Britain to comment on corporate responsibility and the community activities this company was supporting. This was not common in two other European countries. In some cases the respondents in the United States and the Great Britain would reference the failure of banks. They would talk about the need to pay close attention to a company that they would purchase financial products from.

In parallel, I had been doing research in the area of social media marketing, and customer service, and came across significant data on the topic of how some companies were using social media effectively to create transparency and dialogue with their customers. Companies use social media for gaining the trust and cooperation of their customers. Companies who do this well are Starbucks, Nike and Dell. Dell learned about the power of social media the hard way. They ignored an important Dell customer who had a very popular blog. He spread his account of a bad customer experience and generated an immense amount of customers’ complaints from others commenting on, and forwarding his blog.

The hard way – no customer research

Customers through social media are putting pressure on companies to react to their needs. Let’s take the example of the “Motrin Moms” a group of women who spontaneously, through the Internet, joined forces. They were prompted to do this by a TV commercial which characterized women who carried their babies with a shoulder harness or cloth as cool moms. These moms would need their product Motrin, a painkiller medication. Women though, interpreted this as “wearing your baby as a fashion item” and were offended. These women found the ads to be sarcastic and cynical; they felt as if they were being satirized. These moms as a networked group forced this pharmaceutical through tweets, blogs, and YouTube videos to pull their advertisement and publicly apologize to them.

Along comes the Haitian earthquake

In Geneva, Switzerland, where Telono is based, there is a greater awareness of global events due to the number of UN and NGO staff that make their home here. It was evident that social media was essential in rescuing and connecting people who had been injured and separated from their families. It begged the question of how these international non-profits were using social media as a call to action.

We put that question to a social media expert inside the UN, David Galipeau, and found interesting views of what drives the politics of international relief, diplomacy and governance:

“There is no general policy for the UN agencies on the use of social media, and so far no real understanding of how to use the tool. There are no standards or strategy and social media and communication activities need to be syndicated.”

Mr Galipeau said there is a new media task force out of New York that reports directly to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. They are tasked with creating guiding principles for Social Media within the UN groups. He goes on to explain:

“Currently you can find social media content generated by the UN organizations but none of this content on YouTube or Facebook is related to other UN content. The different organizations are silos of communication efforts. There is no real understanding of the output or the effect of these campaigns.”

Another reason for “guiding principles” is that many of the UN organizations have policies in place that limit communications from employees to the general public. This is not like the private sector where employees are contractually free to express their opinions, except in the area of product development or intellectual property. Mr Galipeau goes on to explain:

“I should mention there are a few groups who are using social media effectively calling people to action and to support efforts on the ground. These groups are the ICRC, UNICEF and the WFP.” 

The World Food Program (WFP) has an excellent handle on social media that includes their own Facebook page which is integrated with a branded YouTube channel and Twitter account. WFP and UNICEF work at structuring and managing their Facebook pages so that the content is rich with events and activities. People are making relevant postings, holding charity events and participating. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has a branded YouTube page along with a content-rich Facebook page.

Networked society and social media

“A civil society exists when individuals and groups are free to form organizations that function independently of the state and can mediate between citizens and the state” (Wedel 1994)

UN top management is known for its diplomacy; the mindset is to solve problems by speeches and dialogue. In a sense diplomacy leads to policy and policy influences laws. NGOs and UN diplomats might think it is the policy makers in governments whom they must convince, but the actual target is the social media staff and policy assistants who scan the web for trends and societal attitudes. These social media staff and assistants then write the policy briefs for these officials based on their research. It is this relationship, between the staff and assistants with the public, which governments, UN organizations, and NGOs should monitor.

Many organizations, both private and public, don’t understand that you take value from those Internet communities wrapped around the target audience. This is done by influencing those who are active members of that group that influences the buyers or policy brief writers. Policymakers and networked groups must meet in the middle to make changes and it won’t likely happen through the speeches and diplomacy approach. Knowing how this influencing is done is a key component of ethnographic research which helps us understand these dynamic behaviours.

Changing behaviours and calls to action

In most cases, it is civil society calling into action a response to economic failures, corruption and humanitarian disasters. This is not unlike what is happening to companies who through the networked society are being called upon to be socially responsible and to create quality products.

As Mr Galipeau said, there was little use of social media on the UN organizations’ part to push activity into civil society. “Awareness campaigns” come through the use of social media and can allow for the two parties to understand the language that they are using. Civil society, through new media, can quickly build on networked groups, and form new ones. Governments like the United States understand that, when the civil society is splintered and less attentive, it loses power. The future of social media in the developing world will have far more impact than the brand strategies and lifestyle marketing. As Mr Galipeau would explain lifestyle marketing is meaningless to the world’s poor, yet these poor people do have mobile phones:

“People doubt the impact of social media on the poor yet the multiplier effect is a good example of the notion that all of society does not have to be online”

Social media tools helped save lives and put families back together in Haiti through having or knowing someone who had access to the Internet, especially via mobile. Communities in Africa often would save money to send one child to be educated and that child would in return support his village with knowledge. It is no different in developing countries where one or two people in the village have a mobile phone and information is shared through that person. Mr Galipeau explains the multiplier effect in this context:

“That effect of 1 person online communicating and informing is aiding 8 people offline. The stunning effect of this is that although all people don’t use social media we are seeing awareness of social and market conditions among people who never had this ability before.”

In the case of the Chilean earthquake one man started a Google map where one could find petrol stations and then others spontaneously started to contribute to that map. This behaviour is part of the new media definition of civil society as individuals function independently from the state for the greater good.

The examples above show this multiplier effect takes two forms for business and user experience: One through social media marketing or the viral movement of information posted and tweeted from one site and networked group to the next. The other form is in the contagious behaviour exhibited by the Motrin Moms who acted by virtue of how others were reacting in the social group.

Social media and trust?

So how can society remain focused on civil engagement and collectively rally attention to issues such as climate change, human rights, and the myriad of other issues that face our world?

Can we, as a society stay engaged and focused on problems like Haiti, without starting to distrust those organizations that invite us to donate money? When our friends start to recommend items on Facebook knowing it is just a ruse to allow companies to access our personal data, do we start to ignore or block those friends? When a non-profit agency starts to cleverly engage us in ways that feel like a corporation do we start to distrust them?

A recent report in AdAge, the 2010 Edelman Financial Services U.S. Trust Barometer found that only 25{579fc5914157f01252f22c89e9ec6be3358cbf8c9d19695844f6687910d137e4} of those surveyed considered friends and peers to be credible sources of information (Americans). That’s down from 45{579fc5914157f01252f22c89e9ec6be3358cbf8c9d19695844f6687910d137e4} in 2008. There is evidently more trust among villagers in Africa than friends online.

Experience design for social media

Private and public sector organizations need guiding principles to be answerable to customers and society. The networked society, which could be called private power (Motrin Moms), is defining the new change in business and government that will give rise to new tools to fill gaps. User experience designers are fully aware that the Internet will become a pervasive web of information. This information will be more dense and difficult to manage, although the methods of interaction will be easier.

Clearly, customers are demanding more transparency, responsibility and customer care than ever before. Companies and organizations will need a better understanding of the terms of engagement with their customers. Customers will manage and put pressure on organizations to achieve their aims.

We, as user experience researchers and designers, need to be overly conscious and help our clients understand the markets that they transact in and how behaviours and beliefs can be contagious. Helping our clients design solutions and communication strategies that create transparency and engagement with their customers and those in the surrounding networks will be our challenge in the next several years.