More Companies Realize Business Opportunities Through Social Media

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Improved engagement, turnover, brand visibility and credibility among clients are goals


To kick-start the International Association of Business Communicators annual conference, John Santoro first cracked a semi-joke about himself.

“I don’t Facebook. I don’t Twitter. I think this e-mail thing may catch on ... but over the past year at Pfizer, I’ve come to consider myself the accidental maven of social media.”

Then Pfizer’s vice president of stakeholder communications rolled out the myriad ways in which the pharmaceutical giant has been using mobile apps, chat rooms, YouTube, and hospital bedside computers to spread the word about itself, its products and the science behind them. Few companies can afford not to jump on this fast-moving, brand-building train, he said.

Examples at Pfizer: The 24-hour AskRx.Com lets any among 110,000 signed-on physicians toss a question to a Pfizer doctor about a Pfizer drug and receive an answer in minutes. Partnering with, an online pharmaceuticals search engine and maker of the first mobile pharma phone application, Manhattan-based Pfizer can shoot doctors answers to questions about 40 branded Pfizer drugs through their smartphones.

What’s more, the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media recently formed its Social Media Health Network, a group dedicated to using webinars and other social platforms for sharing health-related information.

“Delivering content to a novel utility, in a simple way, seems to be catching people’s attention,” Santoro said. “When the answers come back, they can share with other doctors. It’s in that [process of] being able to share with other doctors that [businesses] gets some buzz.” That’s not much different from, say, your friends flocking to the same restaurant you gave a rave review on Facebook, he said.

In addition, Pfizer is recruiting people for clinical drug trials through YouTube videos of the scientists who conduct those trials.

“This puts a face on the folks who do these trials,” Santoro said. “Hopefully we can get to a point when we can report back to people in the clinical trials through YouTube.”

That Pfizer, as one arm in the highly regulated pharmaceuticals industry, which is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, has managed to broaden its brand through social media suggests much about how businesses of almost every sort can capitalize on social media, said Julie Freeman, president of the 15,000-member business communicators association, based in San Francisco. Human resources, in collaboration with corporate communications, is key to getting that message out, she added, chiefly by persuading rank-and-file workers and their higher-ups that there’s room for almost everyone’s participation.

The recent business communicators’ conference was conducted on-site at Pfizer’s headquarters in Manhattan and held virtually via a webcast.

“There now are all these examples of companies using social media and best practices in social media,” Freeman said. “Tech companies such as IBM and Dell were [the first big companies to become] part of this corporate social media thing. Then came the retailers, Comcast, Zappos … many highly regulated companies, including [business to business], defense contractors with securities concerns, felt left out of the loop. But now I think everyone understands that they need to come to terms with how to use social media. That is not to say you will spend your life blabbing everything to everybody, but it has to be folded into the mix of communication with employees and with the public.”

Building brand trust with the tools of social media is not difficult, said Internet consultant Jay Berkowitz, who addressed the conference and was an instructor in its boot camp for conferees angling to be in the know. “There’s a lot of analysis paralysis going on,” said Berkowitz, CEO of the Ten Golden Rules agency in Boca Raton, Fla.

The strategies, however, are not uncomplicated, he said. Get the CEO and all other stakeholders involved. A blogging CEO builds authenticity and creates buy-in from the top. “A blog is just a simple web site. Anyone can do it. It’s filling in words, giving them a title and pressing a button to publish.” The CEO could do that or route the message through a corporate communications department to review and refine it. Those blogs can be sent daily to smart phones through RSS feeds, which require one push of a button, Berkowitz said.

 “You want to make these functionalities easy for them,” he added, citing the CEOs and companies who’ve been successful at this—the proof being in their profits and high visibility. Zappos, Craigslist, Whole Foods, Starbucks and others are on Facebook, Twitter and so forth. “There’s a significant business opportunity,” he said. “Starbucks has 14 million Facebook friends, the most of any company.” And those friends do post when they happen to be skipping out for a latte.

Levi’s is on Facebook, he added. A consumer clicking Facebook’s “Like” button for, say, Levi’s “boyfriend skinny jeans” improves that item’s popularity. This type of viral marketing goes a long way these days. He terms this “S-commerce,” selling your brand through social media. He mentioned the vintner who doubled his profits by posting new YouTube videos daily. He added that Delta Airlines and Best Buy, among others, were savvy enough to allow customers to purchase directly from the Facebook pages of their companies.

In an environment where any Jane or Joe can ruin or enhance a company’s reputation, social media is the new marketing, Berkowitz said. There’s that hour-long YouTube video recorded by a customer staring at a blank television screen while on hold, waiting for a Comcast representative to pick up. Thus far, there have been 1.5 million views of that video, he noted. Comcast, reasserting control, launched Comcast Cares on Twitter, with its CEO tweeting about the company’s renewed commitment to serving customers.

An Internet posting by an aggrieved customer isn’t necessarily bad news. When Apple allowed negative reviews that a version of its iPod was easily scratched, sales of protective cases and other accessories surged. Returns and customer service complaints went down, Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz advises that all companies use social media to monitor critiques of them, whether by consumers or employees.

“You can’t beat them, join them,” Berkowitz said, explaining that companies have no choice except to be part of this movement and follow what he calls the three Es. Educate, entertain and engage.

“Yes, monitor the community on your site,” he added. “Don’t allow hate, but let the community talk.”

New York-based freelance journalist Katti Gray’s work has appeared inNewsdayMs.Essence, the Los Angeles TimesChicago Tribune and other publications. She can be reached at