Where businesses currently are in the development and execution of social media strategies, and where they need to be, are two very different things. Social media is not solely a function of marketing or customer service. Social media is an extension of every aspect of a business to improve how it connects to employees and customers and how it evolves processes, products, and services over time.

But a gap exists between what employees and customers want in social networks and how businesses engage today. And that gap places businesses at risk of losing customer attention or missing precious opportunities that help companies learn, earn awareness and relevance, and most importantly, nurture meaningful relationships.

By not understanding the social gap, companies are only perpetuating the great divide. Today, strategists base initiatives and programs largely on assumptions of customer behavior or worse, the perceived success or best practices of other social media strategies celebrated on top of social media blogs and conferences. To develop meaningful strategies in social media takes both acumen and purpose. And, each require information, not conjecture.

In the winter of 2011, Pivot Conference [Disclaimer: I curate and host the event.] conducted a series of research studies to capture the state of social media and customer engagement.

In the last study of the series, the Pivot team interviewed social strategists to assess their perception of customer expectations in social media. Additionally, the team interviewed social consumers to better understand their expectations. The result compared findings to document the perception gap that so many social media experts miss today.

It started with a simple question. Pivot asked brand managers and marketers if they had a clear picture of who their Social Consumer is. An astounding 77% said yes. [See below.]

The team then asked a second question, “Have you asked Social Consumers what they expect from engagement?” The answer both is and isn’t surprising. By and large, social marketers responsded “No” at 53% or “I don’t know” at 12%. [See below.]

So here we have a dichotomy. If 77% of organizations say they know what their Social Consumers want and only 35% have asked, the wireframe for the customer gap begins to take shape. We only know what we know. But I do not believe here that ignorance is bliss. The lack of information is just that. Without insight or answers, businesses cannot truly know how to deliver value in social and mobile networks.

Outlining the gap is only the beginning. Understanding its breadth and what contributes to the divide is as revealing as it is instructional. Businesses believe that the #1 thing social consumers expect in social networks is customer service at 59% followed closely (58%) by contributed insights to help them make decisions. In the #3 spot, 53%, businesses believe that consumers just want to learn more about new products. In a tie for third also at 53%, social marketers presume that consumers are simply seeking deals and promotions.

As it turns out, seeking deals and promotions is at the very top of the expectations of social consumers at 83%. The second expectation of social consumers is that 70% of them expect to be rewarded for their engagement. At 58%, exclusive content becomes a mechanism for both consumer reward, validation and also engagement.

It is in the comparison of the results where the customer gap comes into view.

Social marketers believe that social consumers expect customer service. Yet, customer service is actually at the bottom of their list of expectations.

At the top of the social consumer list is deals and promotions. However, this ties for third among social marketers. And second in importance among social customers, access to exclusive content is 6th in the list of what social marketers think their customers anticipate.

If ignorance is bliss, awareness is awakening. If you don’t know what customers or employees want…ask. Doing so is the key that unlocks insight which can then be applied to meaningful engagement.

Designing strategies and applying budget and resources without awareness is not only uninformed, but it is borderline remiss. At stake here is attention, and attention is both finite and coveted. For without attention, you cannot engage. And, without meaningful engagement, you cannot build or rebuild relationships, drive desired actions or outcomes, nor cultivate loyalty or advocacy.

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