THE BLOG
03/20/2013 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

'Triple C' vs. 'Triple I': Which Kind of Company Are You?

The answer reveals whether you'll dive or thrive as the world goes social.

Toward the end of the 20th century businesses made their first giant organizational shift toward customer-centricity. Management methodologies like Six Sigma promised to reduce the distance between company and customer, executive and employees.

Today, social media has enabled a level of customer centricity that goes way beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. Suddenly the distance between company and customer has been reduced to a mouse-click. Customer dialogue and relationships are literally at your fingertips.

It's time for business to make the next great shift. To compete in this new world requires you to experience the full benefits of social media. To be social, companies need a new operating manual for a completely new social cultural model.

Your company needs to move from being a Command-Control-Compliance company to being an Inspire-Involve-Imagine company. For now I'm going to focus primarily on what that means for your marketing strategy, but it actually has sweeping implications throughout the organization, which I'll address in future columns.

Which Are You?

"Triple C" companies follow a cultural model of command, control, and compliance. Brand messaging is created from the top-down and broadcast out through both traditional marketing and social media channels. Brands talk at customers, essentially telling them to identify and act on a brand-centric, broadcast message. Employees are controlled as far as what to think and say when interacting with customers, and it's assumed that doing so is the unique job of the marketing, sales, and service departments.

"Triple I" companies orchestrate but do not control the message, the channels or even attempt to control their customers. They instead are governed by the model I call "Triple I," for inspire-involve-imagine. Through an ongoing dialogue, they inspire customers to imagine--to co-create an ever-evolving socialized brand experience, which shifts the relationship first from broadcast to engagement and ultimately to involvement, an active emotional dialogue among and with the customers that develops a commitment to the brand. They see every employee as a potential brand representative, and provide guidance and tools to facilitate their ambassadorship.

Ideally, this isn't just about adjusting your existing process to allow for some interference; taking that approach limits your success. Shifting to the inspire-imagine-involve model is really about upending the way you've traditionally done things, from product development to marketing, to allowing your customer to drive the process. It's recognizing that to swim in social, your marketing team can't control the message--and even if they could, they shouldn't want to.

Co-creating with your customer and your broader employee base creates better outcomes. Social provides the space for them to connect and be creative, bringing everybody along for the ride. When you inspire them to imagine and they become not just engaged but involved, then your customers will make you a part of their daily lives because they'll want to, not because you told them to. With their help, you improve your product and their experience of it. The reward for your brand is increased revenue, competitive edge, higher quality customer satisfaction and lower costs.

Social Media Marketing: Dollars and Sense

Social creates a giant 24/7 focus group. It offers your marketing team (and any one else you encourage to participate in the channel) real-time connection and conversation among and with customers. The "among" piece is critical and comes before talking "with." What you'll find is that what customers reveal when they talk to each other is even more authentic and useful than what they tell you directly. All that adds up to business results.

Social media marketing is less expensive, to the tune of 10x ROI: Recently my company, LiveWorld, analyzed the reach of a holiday social media marketing and customer support program that we created, managed and moderated for a top 20 consumer-facing brand. Using even conservative figures, it would have required a digital ad spend of ten times the program's budget for this social campaign to create a similar level of exposure.

Wrapping social around the shopping experience drives sales: Think back to the dynamics of QVC: Hosts on the TV sales program constantly refer to the people calling in, reminding viewers that their shopping experience is shared with others. The act of buying becomes a way to seal a relationship not just with your company, but with friends in the community that exists around your brand. Wet Seal's shopping community, The Runway, provides a great proof point. The Runway is a user-generated virtual closet, available on the web site and through an iPhone app that lets you assemble outfits using pieces available on the site. A post on Forbes reported that shoppers who use the Runway are 40 percent more likely to buy and spend 20 percent more than shoppers who aren't part of the community. The more a social program involves the community, the higher the conversion is apt to be.

Customer support through social drives loyalty and customer evangelism: Companies that choose to deliver customer service and support through social media experience even bigger wins. "Delivering outstanding service [through social] creates impassioned advocates and can serve as a powerful marketing weapon for companies," said Jim Bush, executive vice president, World Service, for American Express, in a press release. "For example, consumers who have used social media for service in the last year are willing to pay a 21-percent premium at companies that provide great service. They also tell three times as many people about positive service experiences compared to the general population. Ultimately, getting service right with these social media savvy consumers can help a business grow."

Aspiring to "Triple I"

Depending on your business, at this time you may only be able to cede so much control to your customers and employees. You may be in a regulated industry (pharma, finance) or have a legal department that's not quite ready for this. You may have internal institutional barriers; leaders who were comfortable and safe in the "Triple C" world may not be ready to let go of the old way. But you can go in steps, and even aspiring to move in the direction of inspire-imagine-involve means you've got one foot in the new model.

One of the great (and most challenging) realities of the Internet is that the best practice anywhere quickly becomes the best practice expected by users everywhere. A great example is Amazon's 1-Click: Customers love it at Amazon and assume that since one company can make it happen on the web page in front of them, all other companies should be able to do so as well. That's not immediately or easily possible for most sites, but the customers don't care. Amazon's best practice has set the bar for everyone else.

The same applies in social. That means that as soon as one brand in your space moves to "Triple I," putting the customer dialogue and relationships in the driver's seat, not just with marketing but with everything they do, your customers will expect you to as well. So get ready.