Let's face it, if your customer web engagement strategy hasn't already moved to a real-time open social network, you might as well be using a rotary phone, right? The irony is that a company's best customer web engagement can often be found within the closed social silos of the company domain.

Customers Demand Your Social Presence

One of the most beneficial things about the push for open social customer engagement is that it adds a level of transparency. In a sense, corporate social engagements break down the perceived bureaucratic layers and make the whole experience feel more human. It’s as if entering the social realm causes us to suddenly realize that corporations are really just made up of people like you and me. We enjoy the idea of being able to read and write tweets to the makers of our favorite candy (@Skittles), software (@BlizzardCS) or automobile (@porsche), or post a comment on a company’s Facebook wall because it makes them feel more tangible.

There is also this conscious or subconscious disapproval of companies that haven’t adopted a social media presence. Neglecting the opportunity to tune personally into your customer’s joy or pain in the social sphere can cost you. For example, the early detection of product defects through social customer feedback can prevent massive (and expensive) product recalls. Having a means to communicate downtime status and resolution progress during a company crisis will help maintain levels of customer confidence. Gathering feedback on what customers expect next can help you develop the right products, reducing costly trial and error.

The Limitations of Social Networks

As useful as it can be to engage customers where they are (social networks), there are unfortunate limitations. Most social networks were not designed with customer engagement in mind. Twitter, for example, though useful for making announcements and discovering isolated tweets to determine customer sentiment, is not designed for rich customer engagement. Using the web to truly engage your customers takes more than 140 characters.

If you don't believe me, try troubleshooting and solving a customer's issue via Twitter. Nine out of ten times the customer will be referred to a phone number, a forum or an email address, where the real engagement will take place for nobody else to see. A shame really, because the rest of the network will never see how amazingly well you handled the customer experience.

The missing piece to an open social customer engagement is a network that allows a true customer engagement experience from start to finish without having to leave the network. Today, the customer is shuffled off to some off-the-network silo to finish the engagement, while the rest of those that might have the same concerns are left clueless, and the company unable to help more than a single individual.

Forums as Discussion Networks

Forums are king when it comes to full, open and useful interaction between the company and the client. As a customer, if you have issues, a quick search on the company forum can often yield a fully documented resolution from start to finish. This is satisfying because you know that the company actively cares and is proficient at resolving customer issues publicly.

Admittedly, without an active and skillful team to keep up with forum-customer engagement, hosting a company forum can be risky. It isn’t uncommon to find neglected company forums full of unnoticed, unresolved topics. For companies with stellar customer service, however, forums can be a way to show off and garner rapid loyalty.

The most effective customer web engagement will take place when we learn to move the rich discussions of a forum into the real-time global reach and interactions of a social network. A social network that extends or even transcends the forum experience by allowing customers to discover and interact with topics across a global network of relevant discussions (think Quora) is what I call a Discussion network.

Final Thoughts

Discussion networks will allow customers to experience the full, quality engagement previously available only in forums, on an open social platform. It will be interesting to watch the rise of these kinds of networks and how they solve many of the limitations found on today’s social networks when it comes to quality customer web engagement.

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