Across the news industry, we’re increasingly asking customers to pay to subscribe for digital/mobile access to our content. As we ask more of our customers, we should get better at embracing one of the greatest customer service tools ever created — social media — to listen to and care for our customers.

Sure, many of our organisations’ top journalists and editors are early adopters and active leaders on social media. Our corporate communications teams are also active. But who’s listening to and responding to our customers about products and services? Journalists cannot be expected to respond to users’ tweeted questions on business issues, such as products, pricing, and log-in problems. Where are our marketing and customer care teams on social media?

The May 2012 American Express® Global Customer Service Barometer found that social media savvy consumers will spend more with companies that deliver great service. The survey found:

  • One out of two respondents (55%) walked away from an intended purchase in the past year because of a poor customer service experience. 

  • One in five consumers (17%) say they’ve used social media at least once in the last year to obtain a customer service response.

  • People who have used social media for customer service at least once in the last year are willing to spend substantially more (21%) with companies they believe provide great service to the general population (13% more).

A key element to the success of The New York Times’ digital subscription model is that we give full access to any article that is visited from a social media link, even if the visitor has exceeded their 10-free-article limit for the month.

It’s critical for the Times that we remain open as a vibrant part of the social Web. We can’t possibly be a vibrant part of the social Web if we’re not listening and responding to our readers on social media. That’s why, on the day we announced the digital subscription model back in March 2011, we launched @NYTdigitalsubs, a Twitter account that serves as a customer advocate account for our subscribers and visitors alike.

Rather than having our products and services be the subject of conversations, our brand was and continues to be an active participant in conversations. I couldn’t find many other news sites that offered a customer support or customer advocacy channel on social media. The Times of London is one. (Know of others? Please let me know in the article comments or @NYCcyn.) 

Five reasons social media customer support is essential:

  1. Provides early signals: Through monitoring social media mentions, you might become aware of a bug on your site/apps that needs to be addressed. By escalating the issue with the appropriate folks in your company, you might be able to contain and resolve the situation before it turns into a communications crisis. Customers provide valuable feedback on how you can improve your product and services. Listen to and use their feedback to improve.

  2. Shows customers you think they are important: 50% of those surveyed who have used social media for a customer service issue are seeking an actual response from a company about a service issue. Without a support channel on social media, you’re failing this group.

  3. Allows you to exceed expectations: As the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer says, “Customers aren’t unreasonable and don’t expect every problem to be solved instantly. They simply want to be treated like individuals, know that you genuinely care about their issue, and are working hard to address it.” From my experience connecting with customers on @nytdigitalsubs, many customers are surprised to hear a response. Customers are often pleasantly surprised that someone is taking the time to acknowledge their issue.

  4. Acquires new customers: Every user who tweets about your brand is a potential new customer. At The New York Times, we’ve seen success in driving new subscription starts by sharing special offers and responding to users who tweet about reaching their monthly limit of free articles with a subscription promo.

  5. Builds a relationship: Whether you’re engaging with existing customers or reaching out to potential customers, social media conversations are an opportunity to deepen your brand’s connections with customers. It’s not just about a commercial transaction. Use humour, empathy, and gratitude. Research shows 48% turn to social media to praise a company for a great service experience. Thank them. Give them a smile in their day.

Ideally, news organisations should dedicate social media monitoring/response staff for customer advocacy, seven days a week. That’s likely not realistic with today’s resources. However, every marketer should make the case to build a Twitter account from which you can act as your brand’s customer advocate. Spend a little bit of time each day monitoring your brand mentions and responding to customers. Pass along users’ complaints and contact info to your customer care team to work toward a resolution. Identify early signals of problems with the user experience and escalate the issue with your tech or product folks. Thank customers for sharing their positive feedback on your brand. Apologise for a bad customer experience but defend your brand and seek to resolve the issue.

If you’re reluctant to commit your own time from an already overloaded schedule, then you should do a simple Twitter search on your key brand terms. See how many of your customers are talking about your brand and sharing positive and negative experiences about it. See how many of those customers are being ignored. Each and every one of those social media mentions represents a new opportunity to build a stronger connection with your customers. You can’t afford not to take action.