Friends, Fans and Followers are becoming a powerful market force

 

My view of any technology is that it is a necessary evil. I use it but have no wish to own the latest gizmo. But I accept that many people are now using social media.

Many businesses see social media as fashionable gimmicks for the young and those who want to pretend they are still young. While this is partly true, as people get used to i-phones, i-pads, blackberries and the rest at work –it spins off into personal life.

The speed of change can easily escape us. A hotel owner recently told me that his big nightmare is staffing - arranging and changing shift patterns of a mix of casual, part-time and full-time workers. He used to find it simple-he rang them on their mobiles, and now says,“ None of them answer their phones –all I ever get is a voice mail. The only way I can get a reply is by text.” A simple change in a year. Nokia has hit financial trouble by misunderstanding the change from mobile phones to handheld mobile devices.

The power of social media and the internet has been shown during the revolution in Egypt and in making a mockery of super injunctions. While some medical tourism companies are starting to use social media, most have yet to comprehend how consumers can use it and how in future it could make or break a business.

The consultancy trendwatching.com keeps an eye on global trends, including technology. Their latest briefing, the F-Factor, has some useful ideas and warnings for all businesses including medical tourism. But I heartily recommend anyone wanting to know more to read the detail.

Consumers are increasingly tapping into their networks of friends, fans, and followers to discover, discuss and purchase goods and services, in ever-more sophisticated ways. Facebook has over 500 million active users who spend over 700 billion minutes a month on the site. Medical tourism is particularly vulnerable as consumers have little knowledge of, or general interest in medical tourism until they actually need it, therefore personal recommendations offer a useful shortcut amongst all the noise. Also consumers discover new products and services by relying on their social networks.

There is a huge opportunity for hospitals, clinics and agencies to engage with consumers, to communicate clearly, and become more 'human'. Any brand that does this will benefit, as consumers will welcome this more open culture.

Social media is an add –on to a conventional website as this enables companies to quickly change to take advantage of the latest trend .Who knows, in two years Facebook could be history, replaced by the latest new media craze; anyone remember MySpace? The trick is to have your offering on a multiplicity of media, not just one or two.

This use of social media means that companies that do not have the budget to spend on traditional print advertising can run online campaigns. But if you start interacting with existing and potential customers, you have to be quick on your feet and respond almost instantly to any query, request or comment. Anyone still taking days to answer emails and phone calls may as well give up.

The underlying driver of using and being on social media is about creating value for customers that means consumers will want to share your products/ services/ campaigns.

Consumption has always been social: people have always been influenced by what those around them think and buy. Keller Fay, a US word of mouth marketing research consultancy, estimates that there are nearly one trillion conversations about brands every year in the US alone. But, just as with so many consumer trends, while the core consumer behavior is not new, technological developments are unlocking new manifestations of that behavior, fueled by new tools and platforms available to both consumers and brands, and by the sheer numbers of people now using and contributing to these tools.

People are curious and interested in what their friends and contacts think, do, eat, read, listen to, drive in, travel to and buy, because often this will be similar to how they want to think, act and buy. No surprise then that consumers are embracing communities, tools and apps that allow them to dive into and discover selections from friends, fans, followers and so on. Three quarters of Facebook users have 'Liked' a brand. (Source: AdAge/ Ipsos, February 2011)

While consumers sometimes enjoy finding the best of the best through discovery, they are increasingly able to access personalized recommendations and reviews on something they know they want to purchase. Your site should automatically serve up friends’ recommendations, ratings and reviews next to services that people are researching. And avoid the tendency to ‘plant ‘ favourable made-up reviews as companies that do this always get found out. Many social media users will be far more tech savvy than you.

Facebook’s Instant Personalization project enables users to have content that their friends have liked or recommended highlighted on other websites. Partner sites include Microsoft’s search engine Bing and travel site Trip Advisor. The Trip Advisor tie in, launched in December 2010, means that visitors to the travel site who are logged into Facebook see their friends’ reviews first, as well as being able to quickly view which of their friends have been to particular cites. Friends can also message each other quickly for additional travel tips.

Google’s +1 feature, launched in March 2011, brings personalization to search results, by allowing users to ‘+1’ results. These are then shared with an individual’s Google contacts, and highlighted in their search results. Google’s stated aim for the project: enabling users to help each other out in choosing the best and most relevant results.

Over the last decade, online reviews have greatly empowered consumers. But anonymous reviews aren’t always what consumers need or want; they can lack relevance and context, and consumers with many options sometimes just want an unambiguous, or finite opinion. Which is where friend feedback comes in: consumers actively disclosing their purchasing intentions and reaching out to their friends and contacts for personalized feedback.

Product recommendations from family and friends are the most trusted. However 81% of US consumers now go online to do additional research, with 55% looking for user reviews, and 10% soliciting advice from their social networks. (Source: Cone Inc, June 2010). 31% of daily Twitter users ask their followers for opinions about products and services. (Source: Edison Research & Arbitron Internet, April 2010). Due to the continued spread of smartphones, feedback can happen in real-time.

It is now possible to have personalized messages and services on one’s social network. Flipboard is an app that integrates tweets and updates into a single, personalized online magazine. Launched in July 2010, the free app automatically creates a magazine from the users social content, letting readers quickly flip through the latest stories, photos and updates from friends and trusted sources. Links and images are rendered right in the digital magazine, so users no longer have to scan long lists of posts and click on link after link; instead, they instantly see all the stories, comments and images in one place.

Personal search engine Greplin launched publicly in February 2011. The search engine scans across a user's personal and social accounts including: Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and Google Docs, enabling users to locate any desired information that may be scattered across their social media network, whenever they want it.

US based PostPost, launched in December 2010, is a free application that turns your Facebook page into a digital newspaper. Users connect the application via the PostPost site, which enables it to link to Facebook and create a presentation of their news feed in the traditional format of a newspaper. Twournal enables users of Twitter to transform their tweets and pictures into a real-life published journal.

Although originally only applying to national and international brands, the drift down factor means that the only way for any business to succeed is to be liked (literally) if not loved, and this liking and loving comes from superior performance.

But here’s the bad news. The perform or perish theme is stronger than ever, and underscores that while social media is currently playing out in the online arena first and foremost, this is in the end about business at large. It is about becoming so exceptional that consumers will find and ultimately choose you, without you as a brand having to do anything extra. It’s not about bribing or even compelling people to “Like” your Facebook page.

The space is still wide open for you to come up with new tools and platforms that help consumers help each other to discover, discuss and buy the best of the best. For any business to customer business, it is now time to deliver innovations, products, campaigns and experiences that truly work on social media.

By the way, if customers think they have been tricked into paying more than the quoted price, with sudden and unexpected extra charges; if the quality of the service does not live up to what you advertise; or if you fall down on anything; no longer is it one unhappy customer that will not use you again, but now one who will literally tell the world what you do wrong.

If a technophobe like me can see how important all this is going to become for medical tourism businesses, what are YOU going to do about it? To beat you over the head with it one more time: besides making sure you are forever fine-tuning the basics, you also have to continuously innovate, by anticipating emerging consumer trends.

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