To most pundits, "Consumer Generated Media" (CGM) means user-profiles at MySpace; karaoke videos uploaded to YouTube; bajillions of blogs; Flikr slideshows; etc. Every PR pro worth their salt is advising clients to "pay attention" to the crushing wave of brand-altering substances spilling out onto the Web.
But there's another form of consumer-created content, freely available to corporations who want to tap into it, which can provide a goldmine of actionable data.
It's e-mail. The e-mail that flows into a company via its customer service channel.
Most companies view customer emails as "trouble tickets." Fix the trouble, and the emails stop.
But imagine a company that took the time and expended the resources to data-mine these e-mails for trends. Imagine a day when these email trends could be correlated and cross-checked with the data they're scouting for in blogs and the mainstream media.
On Day #1, a new product debuts: The Widget. The mainstream media gives The Widget a warm reception. The CMO is pleased.
On Day #2, a spike of email & phone traffic flows into Customer Service. The Widget's doohickey breaks after several hours' worth of use. Customer Service reps navigate users to a solution that usually works. The CMO is not notified of any of this. He's thinking about how to launch The Widget, 2.0. (From a beach. In Hawaii.)
On Day #7, a blogger who waited for 45 minutes on the phone for The Widget tech support (only to be disconnected) blogs about how pissed-off he is about the doohickey's failings and cruddy tech support. His network of online friends pick up the strand. Other pissed-off Widget owners find out about this conversation via Google and Technorati searches on "Widget problems." They blog and comment accordingly. A meme develops.
On Day #14, a BusinessWeek reporter notices that "Widget problems" is high on the list of searches at Technorati. One user's makeshift "doohickey fix" is among the most commonly saved items on del.icio.us. The BusinessWeek reporter calls The Widget people for comment. The CMO is recalled from the beach. There's no SPF-factor lotion high enough to protect him from the "burn" he's about to feel.
Now imagine if the technologies that marketers now use to track online conversations had also been used to track the emails that flooded into the Customer Service department on Day #2.
The Widget-makers could have blogged about "potential doohickey problems and how to fix them;" and put out a traditional release; and, kept a close look-out for blog postings that they could have reacted to almost instantly, to keep the meme from becoming a "firememe" (like a firestorm, only "meemier").
"Social Media" is about the conversation. If your customers are trying to tell you something, be sure you have the capability to listen --- early & often.