ING Direct Canada chief uses Facebook, Twitter to engage customers

Want to engage more effectively with your customers and employees? How about participating in the social networks they use.

It’s a strategy that’s working very well for Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct Canada. Aceto has a presence on Facebook and Twitter (with more than 1,000 followers) and soon will start his own blog.

Participating in social media conversations can help a business build trust, he says. Especially in the face of the economic crash.

Aceto was speaking at a recent panel in Toronto on corporate uses of social media.

“It’s a very sad time to be a CEO in the financial services business,” the ING Direct Canada chief said. “All joking aside, the corporate world has let down millions of citizens around the globe.”

Businesses must embrace social networks if they want to have some control over the public’s perceptions of their brand, other panellists noted.

The rise of social media has effectively put a megaphone in the hands of every consumer who has something worth saying about a brand they’ve dealt with.

Quite often, Twitter or Facebook become a powerful platform for disillusioned consumers use to warn others to avoid their fate.

With all the beating they are taking on Web 2.0 networks, it’s no surprise that corporate reputations are on a steep decline in recent years, according to Boyd Neil, director of national corporate communications practice at Hill and Knowlton.

“Companies and organizations are facing a sea change in idea creation,” he says. “Anybody has the ability to post anything, anytime and anywhere. Their audience may be small at first, but there’s no way to know if that audience will stay small or suddenly influence a much larger group.”

Neil’s insight is famously illustrated by the 2006 AOL customer service phone call recorded by Vincent Ferrari.

The 30-year-old found it nearly impossible to cancel his service, with the AOL representative asking for explanations, and even requesting to speak with Ferrari’s father at one point. After the conversation was uploaded to the Web, it resonated in the blogosphere and Ferrari was featured by many large media outlets.

Trust is fundamental for a financial services business, he adds. Social media gives customers a look inside the organization and will help increase that level of trust. It’s also an opportunity to listen to customer feedback.

Interaction on social media can’t be accomplished with a generic and faceless corporate brand, Neil says. It should be an identifiable person that is acting on a brand’s behalf to interact with the audience. A person is easier to trust than an institution.

“Social media is making past management approaches obsolete,” he says. “The new strategies must recognize that the new backbones of influence are now networks of ordinary people.”

But just because social media requires new strategies, that doesn’t mean it replaces old forms of communication entirely, says Suzanne Fallender, manager of corporate responsibility at Intel Corp. The company’s quarterly internal magazine won’t be replaced any time soon by the company blog – they are complementary.

Social media communication is conducted in much the same way as face-to-face meetings, she says.

“Knowing what’s being said about your company and hearing about the things that are uncomfortable to hear is important,” she says. “It’s only going to help build up trust.”

Often, corporations only need to look at what current employees are successfully doing with social media to find the right strategy for success. Intel saw a couple of employee grassroots blogs take off in popularity. It decided to respond by building a social media resource centre that offered tools and materials that helped inform employees of how to talk on social media venues, and give them the ability to get started.

“It’s an empowering message for your employees to get them involved,” Fallender says.

Companies that look to empirically estimate ROI for investing time and money on social media will be hard pressed to find a good reason, Aceto says. It’s more of a “gut feeling” about doing the right thing to burnish a brand.

“It’s less about anyone providing me with any analysis that proved its worth to me,” he says. “Leaders sometimes have to trust their gut feel about the way the world is going. This is important, it’s not a fad.”

So there’s no proof it will pay off, he says. But have faith.

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