In the past few years social media has revolutionized the way businesses interact with customers, making it easier to market new products and maintain a brand's image. By now it's clear that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ should be an essential part of customer service.
This wasn't always obvious. Many companies were very cautious and slow to start using social media, putting in place all sorts of guidelines for their employees about what could be said and how to use these channels. My team and I jumped in quickly and started to experiment -- over the years we have always pushed each other to be innovative and approachable.
We soon found that these channels were an amazing tool for reaching our customers and the public. One of the first things we learned was that our new social media accounts gave us a real-time view of how we could improve. Through customers' comments, we started learning about issues with our products and services more quickly than ever before. In response, we set up systems so that a customer who has a question or a problem can get a quick answer from our team.
It seems to be working and we have built a strong audience. Today I have 2.4 million followers on Twitter, 250,000 on Facebook, and 2.9 million on Google+; each month, 500,000 people check out my blog. Many of our businesses have their own blogs and Twitter feeds as well, multiplying the number of people we can reach directly. If we need to talk to our customers, we no longer need to limit ourselves to placing ads with established media companies -- we can just tell them directly.
Our online followers often help us to amplify our message by passing it along or linking to it. Just recently, our community of customers sprang into action when the British government decided to award the West Coast Main Line franchise -- Virgin's rail business -- to a rival company rather than continuing with Virgin Trains, which has run it for 15 years. Who runs the trains and how to improve train service is a hot topic in Britain, and when we broadcasted our view that this was a questionable decision, there was an overwhelming response.
Our social media accounts and website were overrun with messages of support from our customers and the public. One passenger, Ross McKillop, posted a petition online challenging the government's decision and asking officials to review the award. By enlisting the support of our customers and of famous British celebrities, we managed to gather more than 160,000 signatures in just over a week, which we hope will trigger a debate in the House of Commons.
The process of spreading the word about a new business has changed now that we have a social media presence. When we bought Northern Rock, a bank in the U.K., in late 2011, people had a low opinion of banks, and we knew it would be hard to change their minds. We asked our followers on Twitter what we should call the new business. Suggestions ranged from Virgin Vault and Virgin Rock to Virgin Trust -- and the interest and thought that the discussion about the name inspired helped us to build stronger bonds between our new company and its customers. (We decided to keep Virgin Money as the name of the bank.)
Finally, we've been using our social media channels to spread the message that we are just as interested in making a difference as making a profit. I set up my first entrepreneurial venture, a magazine called Student, to protest the Vietnam War, and in many ways, I use my social media accounts today for the same purpose -- to comment on issues I feel strongly about, such as the pointless war on drugs and the cruel practice of shark finning. Many followers respond, donate or even volunteer.
Whether you are launching a startup or leading an established company, you should start establishing your social media presence if you haven't already. The easiest way to start is often by setting up a help line, so that customers can ask questions about your product or service. Listen and respond thoughtfully, and you'll be on your way.
Above all, remember to be authentic and organic, answering questions in a straightforward manner -- there's no need to check with your PR team first. You know your products and services, and people will see through any effort to parrot slogans or broadcast a marketing message. Like everything, if you're having fun rather than just doing a job, you're more likely to find success.
I try to answer a few questions every day from followers. People often wonder how I find time to tweet and update my blog so regularly. How do they not find the time, I wonder? Social media is such a terrific way to connect with our customers that I would never miss out.