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Brands in social media: Robert Taylor shows "fanatical support" for Rackspace

Robert Taylor, A.K.A "Robot Terror", accidentally became a Social Media professional from 2008 to 2011 while at Rackspace. He has since returned to his customer service roots and lives in Seattle, WA, which, appropriately enough, is home of the Cloud. Since Adland has been watching how brands engage in social media, with Kidsleepy listing the heroes and scoundrels of superstorm Sandy, and me discussing dark social in Adweek, we thought we'd talk to the people who have been the brands in social media.

First up, Robot Terror.. I mean, Robert Taylor, who talks about his experience at Rackspace where he helped carve out the voice that is Rackspace's social media fingerprint you know today.

Dab: You were the - forgive this - (insert title here) at Rackspace. I know that during your time you searched twitter for words, not just mentions of @rackspace. Was the idea to be more proactive reaching out in social media? If so, how did you do this?

Robert Taylor: I started out as a Senior Systems Engineer (SSE) when I began reaching out to customers and the curious while at Rackspace. I did so informally just because one day, in 2008, I happened to search tweets for "Rackspace" and found someone with a problem. As an SSE I was a point of escalation to our customers and this seemed to be a natural extension of my role. Fortunately, the company agreed and requested I reach out to customers as an official duty. The key things to note here are that I was already in a customer support role, was empowered to actually help customers and was reaching out to customers where they were – this was not a marketing strategy but an extension of the support culture already deeply embedded in the company.

As to my title during the 2 1/2 years I performed this function…that's an interesting question. This was a brand new role and there was a lot of consideration as to what it should be called and to whom it should report. One title suggestion, that I quickly rejected, was "Social Media Czar" -- this didn't represent the role at all. For a few months my actual internal designation was "Untitled Exempt", which was perhaps my favorite :). Eventually, we settled calling the team the Social Media Customer Intervention team and I publicly retained the title of Senior Systems Engineer and Social Media Manager.

I would find people who mentioned Rackspace or one of about 20 Rackspace specific keywords. We used an internally developed program to monitor Twitter for real-time mentions. Our goal was to respond as quickly as possible to inquires, complaints, suggestions, shout outs -- usually within 5 minutes.

One side effect of meeting customers on Twitter is that others saw us there and began to engage more on Twitter with us. Hardly ever in an inappropriate way, interestingly. Thus, as our outreach continued, our mentions (the majority of which we quite positive, by the way) increased as well. By the time I left the role in April of 2011 we had 11,000 to 15,000 mentions a month via the keyword searches. Very few of these were customers, however, as Rackspace was getting a lot of press and blog write-ups.

Dab: That's interesting. Is social media, such as twitter, a good place for a brand to use as a helpdesk? An annoucement-desk? As the white courtesy telephone?

Robert Taylor: We didn't look for a good place to join Social Media; rather, we went to where our customers were already. We realized that we had a huge investment in a world-class support organization and those few customers going to Twitter were expressing frustration with our service, so treating these edge cases as escalations made sense. We weren't attempting to set up a new customer service team but to intervene when either a perceived or real customer service failure occurred. Our customers drove us to Twitter.

Note that they didn't drive us to Facebook or one of the myriad of other social engagement venues. (Except for personal blogs; we also set up Google Alerts for our keywords to find blog posts mentioning us and would engage there if appropriate). Facebook, LinkedIn, early Google+ were not bi-directional conversation drivers as Twitter was.

Regarding using Twitter as a help desk, I really recommend against this. It's not a personal or as trackable as using a ticketing system, chat or phone call. Also, many customers don't want to engage publicly with problems that can better be discussed in private — imagine "Hey, we're having a problem with securing our site, can you help?" as a tweet. In fact, my goal on Twitter was to reach out to customers and direct them to a phone call or email exchange to discuss and resolve any issues. This had the added benefit of removing "negative mentions" from Twitter — important to the PR folks.

Announcement accounts are useful — as long as they are specifically designated as such. DO NOT MIX THE MESSAGE. Some times an "engagement" account can highlight announcements but this should not be the main message if you want people to actually engage with you.

I'd say our use of Twitter for the Rackspace account was less of a White Phone and more of a Red Phone — "I have an urgent need, help!" As a matter of fact, with the Rackspace app for managing Cloud accounts the "Help" button had the support phone number and a link to @Rackspace on Twitter. I have mixed feelings about this today, but at the time it was the natural progression for us at Rackspace. Should everyone (anyone?) else follow this pattern? I have my doubts.

Dab: I have noticed that large brands that do well on twitter are expressing the brands core values on it. In Rackspaces case, what you describe as your twitter presence is "fanatical support" which is the very essence of the Rackspace brand. I find that social media is a tool that can express core values already inherit in a brand, rather than coupon-advertise & hard sell.

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