For all the exclamations around social media for business, one thing is certain: Business forays into social media are pointless if business is not doing anything to turn friends, fans and followers into evangelists and customers.

Businesses may think that they’re doing this when they hire a fresh-from-college “community manager” or give social media outreach to a summer intern. Unfortunately, hope and an intern is a very poor social business strategy. Much of this stems from a technology focus rather than a social engagement focus. This is understandable even though it is wrong.

But theory is one thing. Practice is another. So here at BloomThink we conducted some independent research into the consumer engagement patterns of one high-touch industry: the cruise industry. We looked specifically at Twitter and Facebook fans and followers of six large cruise companies between December 2010 and October 2011. We also looked closely at the Twitter interactions that the cruise companies had with their customers.

Social Customer Experience Maturity Model

We discovered five clear stages of social customer experience engagement. Each stage moves an organization further along the maturity model until they are a highly mature, fully social, customer engagement team. The cruise lines we reviewed illustrated each of these stages.

  1. Stage 1 is existing on the engagement platforms. We looked at Twitter and Facebook.
  2. Stage 2 is regularly posting and promoting PR and marketing. It is outbound and most often one-way.
  3. Stage 3 is reactive engagement with customers who are fans and followers through the social tools.
  4. Stage 4 is proactive engagement with fans and followers.
  5. Stage 5 is where the audience of fans and followers are actively converted into brand evangelists -- ideally through the retelling of their own positive experiences with the brand. It is regular, real and active word-of-mouth promotion.

Social Channels Marketing

The initial findings in our cruise study indicated that all companies were well aware of stages 1 and 2. They had presence and were outwardly promoting their brands through social channels. The results of our findings were encouraging as well. Even with simple stage 1 and 2 activity, there was huge growth all around in social media connections.

Five of the six organizations grew their Facebook likes at rates well over 100%. Twitter follower growth was on a pace that would make any Wall Street analyst jealous, ranging from 36% to 85%. All this was achieved in less than one year. This growth generally follows a general global increase in social media. But the magnitude of the increase is indicative of the increasing importance that consumers place on engagement within high-touch industries.


Consumer Engagement

Even more astounding were the results we uncovered after digging a little bit deeper. We used Klout scores to pulse the level of engagement influence and reach these cruise companies had with their consumers. It is important to understand that these scores change over time so this represents only a snapshot. However, while the sizes of the networks varied dramatically, the ability to engage a person through social media was much more closely aligned.


Again, this signifies a direct B2C customer experience boost through social media tools. We discovered that while all companies are benefiting from increased consumer engagement through social media, a few shining examples of consumer engagement emerged. These discoveries emerged only aft a textual review of the actual tweet streams from the cruise companies. Something of a consumer experience engagement zeitgeist emerged and these were quite different from each other. All can be charted against the five stages of social customer experience engagement.

A Shining Example: Carnival Cruises

The best example was the consumer experience team behind the Carnival Cruises (@carnivalcruise) Twitter account. They had absolutely awesome personal interaction. It was awesome because it was a steady stream of proactive but non-intrusive "we'll serve you!" and “can’t wait to have you aboard” engagement. The engagement was clearly focused on their pre-departure and wish-I-was-departing segments. It was fun to read, even as an outsider looking on. Company interest pieces such as PR and YouTube marketing were there but sprinkled throughout rather than force-fed into Twitter stream. It was like experiencing a fairy tale through someone else’s eyes.


Carnival’s consumer engagement through Twitter is sophisticated and positive. While they have a huge reach and are highly trusted, they should now move to a strategy working on their ability to get re-tweeted and mentioned across a greater segment of their followers. Carnival has successfully traversed stages 1, 2 and 3 of the social customer engagement maturity model. They are now well positioned for the greater sophistication and greater rewards that are required by and come from stages 4 and 5.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

The cruise industry is a high-touch industry that is still in the process of spinning up its social consumer engagement programs. They make a good archetype for any other industry. The stages of social consumer engagement, so clearly illustrated by the cruise industry, are relevant for all organizations. There are five clear stages of social customer experience engagement. Each stage moves an organization further along the maturity model until they are a highly mature, fully social, customer engagement team. The cruise lines we reviewed illustrated each of these stages.

Communication Keys to Social Consumer Engagement

As organizations progress along the maturity model, they must remember communication skills appropriate to the social medium. The three pillars of good communication are very much in play at stages 3, 4 and 5. Indeed, these are what enable an organization to move from stage 3 to stage 5. The three pillars of good communication are:

  1. Be genuinely and sincerely interested
  2. Make the other person feel comfortable
  3. Listen carefully

While technology exists to help companies listen carefully to the flood of inbound signals from social sources, a knee-jerk response to someone mentioning your name or your brand is rarely the best way to communicate. This takes time and cannot easily be automated. For this reason, companies looking to move along the maturity path for social customer engagement should not rely only on automated Twitter and Facebook responders.

Companies should employ a human being who understands how to engage with others on topics that are important to them through the social tools. This means hiring someone with the business savvy to both understand the tools as well as how to start, engage and graciously remove themselves from a conversation with a stranger. Simply parroting the latest corporate promotion or hijacking a conversation are signs of immaturity. Realize that hijacking a conversation is just as gawky and uncouth in social media settings as it is in real life. The quick thrill a consumer has by being “noticed” by the big cool corporation wears off as the conversation turns to a marketing pitch.

Dealing with Problems vs. Airing Dirty Laundry

Remember that social consumer engagement is a good way to head off customer problems before they spiral out of control. But do so in an appropriate manner. You don’t want to air all your dirty laundry on purpose. Deal with public problems as they come up but don’t promote problems on purpose out of a misguided sense of sincerity. It can end up doing more harm than good to your brand. Instead, use social engagement tools to channel one-on-one issues into a one-on-one setting. Twitter and Facebook are not one-on-one settings!

Surprise and Delight Top Consumers & Reap the Social Rewards

Finally, look for areas where you can deliver something to the consumer that is valued by them but has a low to no incremental cost for you. Special privileges, back-stage passes, sending a “remember when you were here” postcard are all items that are cool and interesting to an engaged consumer. Remember to be judicious in how those perks are handed out. No one is entitled to them. So make the most of them. Target the consumers with high Klout or other social scoring indexes. They are the ones most likely to repeat to their networks what cool thing you did for them.

When you put these actions together, you will quickly move up the maturity model to stage 5 where fans and followers become customers and advocates of your brand.

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