by Wim J.L. Elving,
Professor Sustainable Communication, Hanze U. of Applied Sciences; Centre of Expertise: Energy

Reputation Institute’s top-10 ranked companies have combined more than 34 million followers on Twitter. This seems a justification for their high positions. But contrary to the number of followers, they only follow a marginal 14.472 accounts back. That is about 0.04%.

Welcome to the (not) connected corporate world? You might expect that the highest ranked companies have the most followers on social media, but also that they also follow back a lot of stakeholders. And not a marginal proportion. It becomes even stranger If you take a close look at the accounts they are following. For instance, BMW’s corporate account has more than 1,5 million followers on Twitter, but BMW follows only 74 back. And it becomes a nightmare if we analyze these 74, because 47 of these (60%) are other BMW accounts. So, BMW is on Twitter to learn what BMW is saying on Twitter?

Do we seriously need to reconsider the reputation ranking? Reputable firms are connected, have brand ambassadors and a lot of fans. Not in the digital world or in the world of social media, as it shows. Yes, they have fans, followers and friends, but an important element of web 2.0 are the options for interactivity, and the opportunities for dialogue. Call me naïve, but two way symmetrical communication is possible on large scale with the introduction of social media.

Do we really need to finally play down the non-existence of communication 2.0 for organizations? Probably the risks of interactions leading to crisis, or feelings of loss of control prevents that organizations are getting into real dialogue and interaction online. In order to be successful organizations are looking for ways to increase the number of stakeholders and turn them into fans and brand ambassadors, the top-10 ranked companies do not show any interest on social media to engage with their followers, friends or other stakeholders. Or are we facing communication professionals who are not capable of dialogue?

In a series of studies, we have been witnessing this. The highest Reputable firms in Europe do not care about their Twitter and Facebook communities (S.O.S.; Send our Stuff). Asked for reasons (see Elving & Postma, 2017) they answered that stakeholder dialogue is very important, but they lack time to organize this properly. Also, many companies indicated that they organized offline (face2face) stakeholder dialogue meetings. But every company from our second study claimed that the results we presented were not applicable to their current situation, and that they changed dramatically regarding their social media strategies and the role dialogue played in this strategy.

Our latest study included a panel of customers of big Dutch companies. Those customers who followed companies on social media gave in general (almost 50% of the five reputation dimensions of the RepTrack©; emotional attractiveness, products and service, leadership, employability and CSR) significant higher scores than customers that did not follow these accounts on Facebook and Twitter. It seems like the followers are better informed, more aware of what is going on in the company and because of that admire the company more and give companies higher reputation scores.

This should ring the alarm bell for every communication professional. Why spending big sums of money on unsolicited ads, commercials and other marketing materials, when your fans are already connected with you on social media, willing to listen to you (why would they else follow you) and maybe could help you by giving suggestions and feedback. That is what web 2.0 originated from and we learned from examples how this worked well and could make a difference.

Organizations are missing opportunities by not showing interest in persons who have shown an interest in them. To enlarge the stakeholder database and obtain new customers, organizations spend millions on marketing, but ignore their online fans. Digital media brought the opportunity to instantly communicate from every spot on the globe. The myth is that social media brought the opportunity for two-way symmetrical communication, dialogue and interaction.

It is the same as in romantic engagements: just as your romantic partner will leave you when you do not communicate and are ready for dialogue, stakeholders will not be engaged with an organization that does not step into dialogue, ignores the comments, critics and questions. We have been arguing for a long time that an organization is not alone in this world, on an island, but needs to be connected and needs to interact with its stakeholders. Stakeholders are of upmost importance for organizations, but are ignored by these organizations on social media. There is still a lot to gain.

References
Elving, W.J.L. & Postma, R.M. (2017). Social media: the dialogue myth? How organizations use social media for stakeholder dialogue and stakeholder engagement. In B. van Ruler, I. Smit, S. Romenti, & O. Ihlen, & (eds.) How Strategic Communication Shapes Value and Innovation in Society. EUPRERA