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Friday, 19 March 2010

Role of Social Media in Consumer Finance

Recent discussions about whether new entrants are pushing banks to the back office of the consumer finance space have prompted me to update several previous posts on the role of social media and brands vs facilitators.

Of course, "social media" refers to the co-operative mix of internet and mobile  network services that are themselves increasingly networked. Look at all the platforms or applications that enable people to send and receive Twitter "updates" for example. This enables sharing of content amongst users at a time and location that suits them and whatever activity they're engaged in at the time. Unlike the off-line media, we can  even have all our social media available on one screen. So any single social medium is merely a hint of something very much larger:



Anyone who believes we can predict the social network service that people will choose to manage their finances will be disappointed. Human physiology may be reasonably predictable, but human behaviour is not. There is no "mass" of consumers, no bell-curve to accurately describe their behaviour to enable us to predict with any precision how each person is likely to behave next. Even Twitter could disappear in a sudden puff of user indifference, like others before it. Black Swans are lurking - surprise events that have a huge impact and which we rationalise by hindsight.

Yet it's tempting to try to explain the social media as a reflection of numerous trends that signify a desire to assert control over our own personal lives and experiences. Perhaps this at least explains the birth of social media, if not the basis on which it will be sustained.

At any rate, the commercial challenge the social media currently presents for any business is how to facilitate the individual's desire for control, rather than be shunned for failing to do so or even for trying to resist or subvert that desire. This means presenting services that are designed bottom-up and which are highly flexible and adaptable, rather than inflexibly geared to suit the product provider's top-down view of the world.

To distinguish the two approaches, one might call providers of bottom-up, adaptable services 'facilitators', and the providers of top-down, inflexible products 'institutions'.  Another way of summarising the difference between them is that facilitators primarily exist to solve their customers' or users' problems, while institutions are primarily driven by the need to solve their own problems (like 'delivering value to shareholders').

The requisite flexibility and adaptability is delivered by the "architecture of participation" of the kind created by various Web 2.0 facilitators and their users that has enabled us to break down and personalise the one-size-fits-all experience traditionally offered by music labels, book publishers, retailers, package holiday operators, banks and political parties. Such facilitators make the difference between us 'raging against the machine' on customer 'help' lines in a lone, fragmented way and achieving real change by acting as individuals, yet in a concerted fashion.

In the social media environment, the consequences of institutions putting their own needs ahead of their customers can't be overstated. The institution risks tapping into the dark side of the trends mentioned above, and being exposed in a borderless environment of interested, active people. In public policy terms that means being exposed to the sense of frustration and disillusionment responsible for both the plunge in faith in society's institutions and declining articipation in formal politics over the past 30 years, and the corresponding increase in political awareness, informal political action and consumer activism over the past decade. In terms of change theory, people have recovered from their shock at the parlous state of  'the system' and are doing something about it. Similarly, that sense of frustration and disillusionment marks the turning point between vicious and virtuous circles of consumer sentiment and related publicity. This was a key difference between President Obama and the other guy.


This is nicely illustrated by the "Influence Ripples" graphic from David Armano's "Logic and Emotion" blog.

What struck me about this graphic was not so much the ripple effect of conversations about a product, but the 'aerial' view of the customer community (specifically in the case of Twitter, blogs and other "Level 2 Ripples"). This would seem to be a great tool to communicate about, and focus resources on, the architecture of participation users are relying on to personalise their use of a provider's products - a 'virtuous circle' - or bitch about them - the 'vicious circle' of adverse comment.
There are several instances of this dynamic at work, driven by privacy concerns (Phorm, the Data Retention Regulations) content ownership (see the ripples emanating from Facebook's revision to its privacy and content ownership terms) and straight "us vs them" (e.g. Ryanair's collisions over its 'idiot blogger' remark, which viciously spiralled on reports they were going to charge £1 for answering nature's call).

The dynamic relationship between facilitator/institution and its customers is extremely complex, largely because it is driven by the activity in which each customer is engaged at the time of interaction, as well as the stage at which each individual customer has reached in his or her relationship with the facilitator/institution or its product(s). The  following (rather crude) slide is my attempt to illustrate this complex dynamic in the consumer finance context (click to enlarge):

Finally, this dynamic is perhaps even more critical for B2B product providers to understand. Not only may their immediate business customers have their own social media presence (even if only to relate to retail customers), but the B2B service provider's own product is also part of the end user's experience. If the B2B provider's element of the consumer service or experience is unsatisfactory, sooner or later that fact will show up in the 'ripple analytics', and the B2B provider will come under intense public (and published) pressure to resolve the issue. This is happening increasingly in the area of public sector projects, for example, as taxpayers become alarmed at the terrible state of the public finances.

In this environment it's pretty much terminal for a business to ignore the social media or the supporting facilitators, and not to see itself as part of the social media mix. In fact, since we have the Webby Awards honouring business excellence on the internet, why don't we offer Webley Awards for businesses that don't get it (as in the old imperialist who retires to the library with his service revolver and a bottle of port)?

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