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How social media can influence high-stakes business decisions

Kim S. Nash | Sept. 30, 2014
Social media is more than just amassing likes. Companies are using advanced social techniques to rehabilitate corporate reputations, uncover ideas for breakthrough products, and figure out what competitors are up to.

Sensors under the tailgate detect the driver's leg motion and communicate with his programmed key fob to unlock the hatch. The driver doesn't have to put down packages to open the back of the car or truck by hand.

But Ford didn't immediately proceed with the idea. The company's advanced product-marketing group was getting mixed signals from the data it normally studies while planning new car features and wasn't sure whether the feature would be worth the effort. Did customers want it enough? The group called on Cavaretta's team of data scientists to answer this specific question.

Rather than trying to survey social media channels in general--which would have yielded too much data to assess quickly--the team swept Ford enthusiast forums and blogs to look for discussions about the topic. High-powered servers can collect data fast, vacuuming social networks for keywords in minutes. But the ability to automatically interpret it for business decision-makers isn't as advanced, Cavaretta says. "One challenge is developing algorithms to find the right data and do the right things to it."

Ford found that people, four to one, favored the hands-free method. But more than statistics, the team discovered context. People talking about the lift gate had also talked about why they wanted it, what kind of cars they had, and other wished-for features. "You could build that data into a story," he says, which is important when trying to get approval for projects.

Lurking on social media lets Ford capture knowledge without influencing the conversation the way a focus group would, he says. He credits former CEO Alan Mulally for instilling an approach to decision making at Ford that relies in equal measure on data and qualitative stories to explain the numbers.

"A computer can help, but it's people who make those decisions," he says. "It was a huge cultural change."

Moving the Needle
Virgin America used social media to change what might have been a painful loss in the growing Dallas airline market into a key victory, just a couple of months before it filed for an initial public stock offering.

Domino's Pizza has used social media to change its very reputation. It used to be that companies could control what customers knew or thought about a brand, says Doyle, CEO of the $1.8 billion company. But now people trust friends and family more than they trust big business, he says. And where are friends and family? Online.

"What people are saying about our brands on social media is more important than what we say about our brand," he says.

For example, when someone named Bryce in Minnesota posted a picture of the messy pizza that was delivered to him on a Domino's website,, Doyle himself starred in a national TV commercial apologizing and promising the company would do better--and he showed the bad pie.


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