Has your company fallen into the trap of the “social media help desk”? At Social Commerce Summit 2011, Jeremiah Owyang’s keynote addressed of one of the biggest challenges ahead for social strategists: scale.

One-to-one customer service models on social networks may work well now, but we’re creating an expectation for customers online that we can’t meet forever, Jeremiah warned. As the collective online conversation grows every day, maintaining this direct brand-to-customer conversation with every customer will be impossible. The help desk model simply can’t scale.

To avoid getting trapped in a one-to-one service model, companies must act now to build sustainable, scalable social programs. Here are Jeremiah’s five tips to escaping the social media help desk, further illustrated with examples from our client base.

1. Organize your company internally for social scale

According to Jeremiah, companies typically organize their social media use in five ways.

  • Decentralized. Anyone in the company can use social however they choose. No organization.
  • Centralized. The company’s social efforts are run by a centralized person or team, usually in corporate communications. Most companies start here.
  • Hub-and-spoke. The company branches out from its centralized social control, involving new individuals and teams. The central hub outlines corporate social policies, and triages social efforts to the spokes based on different roles.
  • Dandelion or multiple hub-and-spoke. Suited to large, international companies that are composed of multiple, distinct brands that act with a high degree of independence from the central organization.
  • Honeycomb or holistic. The entire organization uses social media in an organized way. Social content flows freely across teams and platforms.

Achieving honeycomb status takes significant social maturity – Zappos and our clients Dell and Best Buy are among the few companies approaching this level, Jeremiah says. His advice: formalize a hub-and-spoke this year to ensure your social efforts aren’t relegated to customer service.

2. Scale with peer-to-peer communities

Building a social culture of peer-to-peer conversation – rather than one-to-one, brand-to-consumer conversation – is critical to scaling. Rather than responding to every tweet and Facebook post, work to create a culture in which your customers and shoppers help each other, Jeremiah says. Our client Sephora, for example, created their “Beauty Talk” community for customers to answer each others’ cosmetics questions. Best Buy leverages “super users” to answer 30% of all customer questions in its Q&A community.

Don’t choose between social networks and your brand site – create peer-to-peer community cultures on both, says Jeremiah. Our client Clorox Green Works syndicates all reviews collected on their brand site to their Facebook page, and vice versa, to maximize reach and create the “viral loop” that Dan Rose of Facebook discussed in his SCS11 talk.

3. Integrate socially-relevant discussions at every phase of the customer lifecycle

Curate conversations around your products and brand to help shoppers find the information they need: opinions from people like them. For example, our client TurboTax aggregates support discussions on product pages and has featured review content on in-store displays, placing relevant community conversations where they may benefit shoppers.

But your social efforts shouldn’t just be about getting customers to buy. Show customers you care about them beyond the sale by actively requesting their feedback. Keeping the conversation going can turn your customers into advocates, creating a loyalty loop that keeps them coming back. And their feedback becomes online word of mouth to influence even more shoppers.

4. Formalize a customer advocacy program

An advocacy program is different than a loyalty program. Don’t just reward customers for their continued business; reward them for spreading the word about your products and submitting their feedback. Our client Nexxus, for example, targeted customers for a pre-launch advocacy campaign for a new product. Nexxus sent samples to past reviewers who showed high intent to recommend Nexxus products (among other criteria), and asked these samplers to write a product review. This authentic feedback powered the product’s marketing for a successful launch campaign.

Build a strong participation chain to keep customers engaged, and reward them for contributing, sharing your content, inviting their friends – any social activity you want to encourage. This is different than the average viral campaign (not to be confused with the viral loop) – it’s long term, and keeps customers engaged over time.

5. Streamline workflow with social media management systems (SMMS)

Social media management systems help your company manage SM accounts and conversations across multiple platforms. Investing in these systems now is important to scaling social activity, Jeremiah says. Among other benefits, SMMS programs allow for scalable moderation across social networks, to help your company moderate out content deemed inappropriate or libellous. These programs give companies a level of “parental control” to avoid situations like Kenneth Cole’s untimely Egypt tweet.

Remember, Jeremiah says, that the future of social is much bigger than “social marketing” as we know it today. Social will become pervasive throughout online and offline activities, shopping included. Insights from social will cascade through organizations to improve support, drive product innovation, inform supply chains – you name it. To benefit from all that social has (and will have) to offer, businesses must get out from behind the social help desk.

Enjoy this recording of Jeremiah’s full SCS11 presentation, featured below (RSS and email subscribers can view it here):

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    Wow, lots to digest. Thanks for generously sharing this useful info. Especially appreciate the acknowledgment that for some businesses, the goal may not be tens of thousands of fans but a few hundred solid ones.