It’s been one of the most recurring pieces of advice digital communicators give out — make sure your brand is human online.

Too bad so many organizations screw this up.

It’s surprising that so few organizations act human in these spaces. They fail to embrace the “social” in “social media.” Instead, they reply with boilerplate text, take far too long to respond, or don’t monitor social networks for current issues or those building on the horizon.

Real Faces, Real Humans

If your organization is in the business-to-consumer space, stop reading right now and go look at the avatar icon of your brand’s Twitter account. If it’s your logo, consider replacing it with the face of a real person.

At the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, which provides vehicle coverage for residents of the province, former social media head Karin Basabara used her real face on the Twitter account, providing a visual human connection to people.

“I had done a ton of research before I decided to get going with the Twitter account.  I looked at other corporate account to see who was doing things well and who would like to emulate,” she told me. “One of the accounts that I really thought was great was Scott Monty who was running the Twitter account for Ford Motors  and I thought this would be a really great way to show the human side of ICBC So I started using my picture as the avatar.”

“We knew at the time especially that our customer profession was typical of a lot of crown corporations that we were bureaucratic, that we were stuffy, we put up walls and very sort of non-human.  We weren’t friendly or approachable and I thought this is one way to change that perception and to show that, as a matter of fact, we are friendly and approachable.”

But Perhaps Too Approachable

With Karin’s real face and name on the corporate Twitter account, she became the target of profanity-laden tweets sent by frustrated ICBC customers.

“When I first started, I had the gut reaction with me to ignore those — that they were just spammers or not worth my time. I remember one guy in particular who used profanity that seemed genuinely frustrated, and it was at that point that I thought ‘Nobody just tweets ‘Fuck you, ICBC’” on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. without there being some reason behind it.”

“So as of a bit of an experiment I started replying to every single negative tweet.  It was a pretty shocking to me how things usually turned around.”

Karin’s peace and love missive to all haters usually resulted in one of three responses:

  1. Silence. In most cases, the tweeters would ignore her attempts at reaching out.
  2. Bemused Surprise: People would reply and say, “LOL, I didn’t realize you were actually on there listening.” And sometimes: “Haha, no worries.  Don’t worry about it.”
  3. Connection: They would apologize for swearing (or not) but explain the issue they have, or the criticism of a policy they had.

Karin reflects: “I can’t count the number of people that would turn around at the end and say, ‘Wow. Thank you so much for helping me,’ or maybe we would agree to disagree, but they were happy that I was just there to listen.”

“I think that for a lot of businesses, the way they approach social media is definitely without a lot of humanity.  They think of it as just an extension of their web site. But I think it’s a huge opportunity to extend your company’s story and your company’s brand.

“Really, at the end of the day, what I did at ICBC was customer service.”

Beware the Julies

The key is to use faces of real people who work for your organization, not just any face.

Use faces of real people who work for your organization, not just any face.. Click To Tweet

I had to inquire about a specific train ticket the other day on Amtrak, so I went to their web site to try to get some information. There, on the top of the screen, was the image of helpful customer service rep named “Julie” who claimed she could help.

Julie was, of course, just the brand name for Amtrak’s customer service software response engine.

And she wasn’t exactly helpful.

Typing “I need to change the seat of a wheelchair user whose ticket I have purchased” got me unrelated text about how seating is assigned. (Julie even audibly reads out the text.) I then typed “But I need to CHANGE the seat,” and Julie, apparently suffering from brief amnesia, simply repeated back exactly what she said before.

Don’t confuse putting a human face on your Frequently Asked Questions list with actually taking steps to humanize your organization.

Julies seem to be a bit of an epidemic lately.

Beware the Julies. They seem to be a bit of an epidemic lately. Click To Tweet

Until recently, the Twitter account at Coast Capital Savings was identified by an attractive young customer service rep named, well… guess. “She” responded to customer service comments online in a friendly, human tone.

Good tone, to be sure.

But Julie was not a real person. Julie was just the customer-facing brand of Coast Capital. There was no real Julie. The woman in the photo was an actor hired by the company. Coast Capital’s e-marketing specialist actually did most of the speaking for her, though, presumably — like “Shamu” at Seaworld who never dies — if this real person left, the next person in the role would simply put on the cloak of Julie.

The idea was thought up by Coast Capital’s ad agency. As head of marketing Vivian Caporale explains, it was an attempt to align offline branches with the online service channel. “The year prior, we had introduced a new branch design. It was very a open and customer-centric design. Central to that design was the concept of having a greeter and a greeter desk. It was at the forefront of our branch design.”

But when the branding team went back and looked at their web site, there was a mismatch. “That’s how Julie was born. We have greeters in our branches; why don’t we have greeters on our web site?”

To Whom Do Robots Report?

One more potential issue: Responsibility for the Julie account at Coast Capital lay with Marketing, not Member Service. An odd choice, considering “Julie” primarily dealt with members inquiries and complaints. It’s reminiscent of the days when the IT department held tight reign over a company’s forward-facing web site — technically, yes, it’s an information technology product, but its real value was marketing the organization. While certainly tight integration is necessary between the two teams (after all, Caporale notes, “there’s a certain level of quirkiness and humour that really talks about our brand personality”), the main department holding responsibility for member service should have been, well, Member Services.

While some would argue the “Julieization of the web” that this puts a humanizing face on the organization’s support team, members soon realize that the person they were talking to all along wasn’t who they thought. It was a good start, but this particular implementation of humanizing their member service department only goes halfway.

To be fair, Coast Capital’s Julie account did indeed provide stellar service. Most tweets — even angry ones from members — were responded to in a personable tone. And with more than a half million members (making them Canada’s largest credit union by membership) and 50 branches in southwest British Columbia, they’re clearly doing something right.

But being human isn’t the same as “faking” human.

Being human in business isn't the same as faking human. Click To Tweet

Beware the Julies.