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There’s More to it than Customer Service

I was reading through some of the links Neil Perkin included in his best posts of the year and I couldn’t not respond to this statement from The Web is a Customer Service Medium:

That is the point that I am trying to make. The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium. “Intense moderation” in a customer service medium is what “editing” was for publishing.

Partly I agree. Much of the web is a customer service medium, or at least it’s an active medium: A place where people seek out answers to their questions. Paul Ford, the author, calls it “why wasn’t I consulted,” an attitude that’s impossible to ignore if you’ve been on the internet for more than the last five minutes.

But I think the attitude in the statement above has been taken to heart a bit too much by brand marketers. This ties into a few thoughts I’ve been working around in my head that I figure I’ll try out here.

Communications theory breaks down communication into two buckets: Interpersonal and mass. This was a distinction that made a lot of sense before the internet when you had TV/radio/print and talking … with people … in person. When brands started getting on the web the term that seems to have stuck was conversational, as in, “the web is a conversational medium.” Conversational, obviously, connotes interpersonal, and that’s how many thought of the web. It was a place for customer service, a place where brands can “connect with consumers.”

That’s all true.

Except it was never what was really interesting to me about the web. What made the web magical was that it was a place you could connect with a lot of people at once in a way that felt interpersonal. I’ve always thought of it as interpersonal with scale. It’s somewhere in-between — mass-personal if you will. It breaks the theories.

Social only increases that. What makes social so different (and why it drives me crazy when people talk about intention as the way to make money in the sphere) is that it’s a place people go without intention. Those millions of people spending millions of minutes on Facebook a day aren’t really there to find out what’s happening with their friends, they’re just there, in the exact same way they’re just in front of their television (plus clicking, of course). Twitter’s the same. So is Tumblr. People don’t load that up looking for something, they open their iPhone and hit the Twitter icon looking for nothing. If this wasn’t clear enough look at Twitter’s redesign: @ replies are now your social stream and direct messages are buried two panels deep (yes, I know about the swipe). Twitter is trying to get people away from the transactional relationship with the service (messaging/replies) and moving them to a more Facebook-like relationship (which they already have with the main stream).

Brands need to start recognizing this. Right now they’re stuck in the customer service mindset, and while I don’t think customer service should disappear completely from their strategy, it’s not how you build a brand and I don’t actually think it’s what people want on these platforms (there’s 1 complainer for every 99 fans).

So yeah, part of the web is a customer service medium, but that’s not the place where people are spending most of their time.


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