CMOs and Social Media: Learning from Cosmetics Companies

“’Trying to guess what the [mass] audience wants and then trying to satisfy that is usually a bad recipe for getting something good.’”

So says Aaron Sorkin in an interview in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Sorkin, as most everyone knows, is the writer behind The West Wing, The Social Network and the movie version of Moneyball. In the case of the quote, he is speaking specifically about the entertainment industry and how an intimate relationship with your viewers inevitably leads to a superior, more engaging product.

But Sorkin’s quote can just as easily be applied to the evolving relationship between businesses and their customers—what I call the democratization of commerce. The fact is that digitally connected customers are using a technology arsenal to redefine the nature of their relationships with the brands that matter to them. It’s wholly unsatisfying for them to engage with a brand that is simply and archaically trying to guess at what they want. These are people whose smart phones are nearly always within reach so as to more efficiently broadcast their opinions across social networks or call up the perspectives of others. By extension, connected customers expect brands to be at least as sophisticated in their use of technology, drawing meaningful insights from customer comments and behaviors, and using them to improve products, services and the customer experience for the larger group.

Consider a recent article in the New York Times about the ways in which connected customers, through their use of social media, have turned the cosmetics industry on its head. How? By turning to social networks to protest loudly and at scale when favorite products have been taken off the shelf. The Times quotes Karen Grant, a senior global industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. as saying that social media is “literally reshaping how the market is driven.”

Cosmetics companies aren’t just analyzing what consumers are saying about product lines, the savviest ones are turning to social media to proactively solicit the opinions of women everywhere, letting them vote en masse on the fate of various product lines. For example, both Bobbi Brown and MAC Cosmetics have held contests asking women the world over to vote on their favorite discontinued items, which were then brought back and offered exclusively online. This is the democratization of commerce as played out across the health and beauty industry. The message that Bobbi Brown and MAC are giving their customers is as simple as it is powerful: your opinions matter and if you’re willing to tell us what you think, we’re willing to act on it. Can there be a more customer-centric message than this?

Still, the reality is that many Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and their teams have been slow to recognize that social media has inexorably changed the fundamentals of commerce. We know from IBM’s CMO study, which was based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,700 CMOs in 19 industries from 64 countries around the globe, that only 26 percent of CMOs are tracking blogs, 42 percent are tracking third-party reviews and 48 percent are tracking consumer reviews to help shape their marketing strategies. To quote Aaron Sorkin, “that’s a bad recipe for getting something good.”

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