January 21, 2018

Social media raises the bar for customer intimacy

Social media is raising the bar on customer intimacy.

Though it has become a generic term, customer intimacy was first coined by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema who worked at CSC/Index back in the 90s when I was a thought leadership marketer there. Rooted in Michael Porter’s timeless work in business strategy, Treacy and Wiersema took it a step further with their three “value disciplines.”

The theory is that every company competes in three disciplines:

  • Customer intimacy. These are companies that go out of their way to build close customer relationships. They are focused on lifetime customer value and are willing to incur short-term costs in order to build long-term loyalty and satisfaction—Nordstrom and Amex are a couple of B2C examples.
  • Operational excellence. Customers rely on these companies to deliver reliability and quality at a low price. FedEx is an example, having invented the guaranteed overnight shipping model.
  • Product leadership. These are companies that rely heavily on innovative, exciting, status-conferring new products to hold customer interest. Apple is the most obvious example here (Sony used to be).

Treacy and Wiersema argued that all great companies strive to be leaders in one of these disciplines while maintaining a reasonable level of parity with competitors on the other two. Though the theory was criticized at the time as being overly simplistic, it has held up remarkably well and continues to strike me with its simple (not simplistic) clarity.

Where’s the customer intimacy revolution?
You could argue that two of the three disciplines have already had their revolutions. The quality movement let most companies achieve a high level of reliability and consistency (for example, most car companies score very closely in quality rankings these days), and the venture capital movement (along with 3-D design software) has created a ready avenue for unknown product innovators to gain the spotlight.

Customer intimacy has remained the poor stepchild. There has been no revolution—no breakthrough in process or practice to raise all boats. Hard to manage and to scale, highly reliant on the vagaries of human nature, most companies continue to have poor relationships—or worse, no relationships—with their customers.

Social media is making that fact plain.

But you know, I’m tired of hearing people say we need to get closer to customers. Where’s the 21st-century revolution—the customer intimacy version of the quality movement—to show us how? We’re all struggling to move from the traditional arm’s-length, temporary campaigns to the always-on, direct relationships inherent in social media management.

The good news is that we may look back on social media as the movement that made high levels of customer intimacy as achievable as product quality seems today.

Intimacy through content
I think so because social media is starting to give us a way to scale intimacy. We can do it with content.

Social media reduces the incremental cost of content. We know that in B2B, customers and prospects respond best to ideas, news, research, and how-to—not sales pitches.

Social media is a channel for raising the level of intimacy that we have with customers and prospects with that content. Think of social media management as filling in the gaps. Chunks and snippets of white papers sprinkled through social media like breadcrumbs in the forest let us deliver value and build trust by providing content at a higher level of frequency. Social media that connects one live event with the next one lets us continue to build the relationship. Most of this is content we were going to produce anyway. Social media lets us spread out the cost while also increasing the frequency of touches.

Unspoken intimacy
We tend to think of intimacy as being personal—something for the salespeople. But we can do it by reliably delivering valuable content. Magazines have been doing it for years. Consistency, relevance, and quality create a very intimate relationship with readers. I will never forget the live encounters I have had with readers while attending trade shows when I was at CIO or my bike magazine—people I had never seen or spoken to before—who approached me to tell me how much they loved or hated my magazine without even introducing themselves. In their minds, they had already developed a deeply intimate relationship with the content that they associated me with, and they felt passionately enough to speak it to a complete stranger because I was associated with that content.

It was very easy to strike up a conversation with those people because we already had a lot in common. And I knew that I would probably never see or hear from many of them again because I didn’t have a channel for communicating with them directly once we parted ways—except through the articles I wrote and edited. Few people bothered to write letters to the editor, just as few people contribute to communities or post comments on blogs today. But that doesn’t mean that the intimacy isn’t there. Our intimacy exists mostly through the content—we just have to find ways to surface it.

Social media increases the frequency of those kinds of contacts. I can’t help but think that as the different social media channels continue to evolve, customer intimacy is going to take a leap forward.

What do you think? How should social media evolve to let us create customer intimacy more easily and economically?

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  • TaylorEllwood

    I've posted about social influence on my blog, where I examine how the influence a person has on social media dictates the level of response a company will provide that person. I think social media could improve customer intimacy, but businesses first need to stop reacting and be more proactive. There are some businesses that are doing that, but the majority are still reacting. I think as companies get more sophisticated with social media this will change and there will be more customer intimacy. Good post.

  • Hi Taylor,
    I agree that if we're going to make social media scale, we need to pick our targets more carefully. We really need to research not only who is doing the talking, but who has the influence. Thanks for the comment!

  • Jim Shields

    This is very well observed. I feel that a profound lack of intimacy in B2B communications especially is borne out of a fear of redress. Of some kind of accountability. If people start talking to people, especially about their hopes and dreams and feelings, who knows where it will all end. Careful – it might engender some kind of commitment and loyalty. Then you’ll have to keep providing great products and services at appropriate prices. This is a pet subject of mine and something I wrestle with every day with my larger clients. They are getting there slowly but surely. J.

  • Good point, Jim. I think that we have been able to do our marketing at arm’s length for a long time through traditional one-way messaging channels like brochures and PR. Those days are over. The fear here is of change and we humans don’t like change. But we’ll get there. Thanks for the comment!

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