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Customer engagement strategies that heed power of social media

Executives from Legendary Entertainment and Microsoft explain how their customer engagement strategies rely on the power of analytics and a core set of social principles.

The power of social media to alter customer engagement strategies -- for a product rollout, an executive hire,...

a policy change -- is impressive.

Case in point: Legendary Entertainment did not anticipate the kind of response it would get when it released its trailer for The Great Wall. The decision to cast Matt Damon as the hero in a film centered around the iconic Chinese landmark drew immediate criticism on Twitter and Facebook as another example of a white savior narrative and of whitewashing.

"The whole storyline was meant to be about someone coming into a new culture and learning and growing in that culture," Matt Marolda, chief analytics officer at Legendary, said at the recent HUBweek, an arts, science and innovation festival in Boston. "But the perception was not that."

Social media platforms and the swift judgment of the internet are forcing companies to engage in ways they've never had to before. And executives from Legendary and Microsoft are sharing their experiences with the new tools for -- and rules for -- customer engagement.

New tools of engagement

On paper, The Great Wall made sense, according to Marolda. It was 2016, and the U.S. and China were the two biggest movie markets in the world; the East-meets-West film reflected Legendary's sale to Wanda Group, a massive entertainment company in China. And, based on an analysis Marolda and his applied analytics team did, Damon had an active following and a reputation for taking on high-quality projects.

But what looked good on paper did not translate well to audiences -- especially those in the U.S. Marolda said the company reacted to the criticism quickly. For example, the company released a statement from Zhang Yimou, the film's director whom Marolda characterized as "the Steven Spielberg of China," defending the casting decision.

After that, the team stood still and observed. "We had time on our side," said Marolda, adding that the film wasn't scheduled to be released for nine months. "We could see analytically that the best thing to do was nothing."

The public ire did cool, but the film couldn't completely escape the negative press it had received, according to Marolda. The company ultimately decided to shift its marketing strategy. "We then realized that emphasizing the movie's possibilities outside of the U.S. was as important as emphasizing the movie's possibilities inside the U.S.," he said.

The decision appears to have been a good one. While the film bombed in the U.S., it was moderately successful worldwide, and has helped spark a larger conversation about how to make blockbuster films for a global market.

Executives onstage at HUBweek.
Matt Marolda, chief analytics officer at Legendary Entertainment, and Kathleen Kennedy, director of special projects at the MIT Sloan School of Management, onstage at HUBweek.

Customer engagement strategies: Ask three questions

How do companies develop customer engagement strategies that acknowledge the power of social media? A reactive approach -- no matter how swift the response or how successful in the short term -- doesn't cut it.   

Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, talked about the role companies should play in the public discourse and stressed that companies need a moral compass today.

"You have to know the issues for which you're going to take a stand. And you have to be grounded in a certain set of principles," he said during a fireside chat at HUBweek with Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review.

Before weighing in on a controversial issue, Smith suggested that companies ask three questions. First, is the issue important to the business? Smith described this question as "an easy space," and can include tax law or intellectual property law -- topics companies have always weighed in on.

Second, is the issue important to its customers? As data has moved to the cloud, companies have entered into a new kind of relationship with their customers, according to Smith. He said it's vital that they think about the security and protection and actively take a stand on issues like surveillance and privacy.

Third, is the issue important to employees? The company believes a safe work environment doesn't automatically equate to employee success. Employees could be hindered by issues outside of the office such as an inability to buy the home they want to buy, get the kind of healthcare coverage they need, or marry the person they want to marry, according to Smith.

So when a bill in North Carolina looked like it would restrict LGBT rights, Smith said it "was not a difficult decision" for Microsoft to voice its opposition. The company has a pretty significant presence in Charlotte, employing about 1,000 people there, and Smith said the issue was "important for our employees outside of the workplace."

In an effort to be as effective as possible and preserve its relationship with the community, Microsoft will often seek out a local business community -- a trusted organization that uses its voice to speak up on issues such as these -- to partner with. "I prefer a course that's going to maximize our chances of being effective and not just maximize our chances of being seen," he said.

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