An open letter to the shipping industry: Don’t underestimate the power of social and sharing

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On 30 September 2013, I left Maersk Line after exactly two years at the Headquarters in Copenhagen. In 2011, I was brought in from the agency side with the primary aim to get Maersk Line started on social media.

The project appealed to me right from the beginning. Not only is Maersk by far the biggest company in Denmark (almost 20% of Denmark’s GDP). It’s also surrounded by myths about life behind the ever-closed bluish windows in the infamous “Building with the blue eyes” in Copenhagen.

And now they wanted to add social media. “This could either go really well, or really wrong,” I remember thinking. To me (and to many others, I later learned) social media and Maersk was like red and blue, night and day, alcohol and pills.

Some colleagues were kind enough to tell me that they didn’t believe in the project: “We’re boring. We’re B2B. People won’t ‘like’ us.”

Luckily, they were soon to be proved wrong.

A ketchup effect

What happened was a minor social explosion, revolving around a huge database of splendid Maersk photos, both historic and current ones.

I believe it was also kind of a ketchup effect. Finally, here was a company in the maritime industry that was ready to embrace social media and share the many stories and emotions of the industry. And also ready to listen and respond to the public via these relatively new two-way channels.

Here’s the Facebook fan graph from Maersk Line’s first year in social media:

Fan graph year one

Within the first six months we expanded our presence to 10 social networks. Facebook was a good starting point, but social media can offer so many other things on so many other platforms where you can interact with and influence different target groups.

Also, we knew that Facebook would never become the place for a valuable interaction with our customers.

So we established profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Vimeo, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Flickr and the Chinese network Sina Weibo.

All of this is fine and well, and if you want to read more about the project then I recommended you read either this article on Forbes.com or this interview conducted by McKinsey.

Facebook is just a step on the way

However, what’s really interesting about social media and the shipping industry is not what I’ve just written. Social media is much more than the various big social networks and the opportunity for brands to engage directly with their audiences.

The interesting part – not least for the C-suite – is the long-term business value and implications that are set in motion by social media.

If we take a step back and look at social media again we see that it’s simply a new technology connecting all of us in new ways. You can compare it to the telephone.

For companies, it’s relevant for each and every department. You can use it for service, sales, branding, communications, PR, HR, operations, leadership, customer insights, business intelligence, internal collaboration and so on and so on.

Yes, much like the telephone.

Why don’t you listen?

In short, if you ask me, there’s a lot to gain from social media for most companies in the maritime industry. Not necessarily on Facebook and Twitter. Another way of using it, for example, is to truly listen to the customers in places where they’re talking about the company without the company asking the questions.

Usually, when a company asks a question it will get the answer it’s looking for, and not the truth.

An improved understanding of the customers via social listening tools can improve both customer touch-points and product development. Innovative solutions require creative listening, as Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, wrote recently. The key is to make listening part of the company culture and get the employees to embrace it.

Being a company that truly listens would be a strong differentiator for any company. One example is from the US banking sector, more specifically from Fifth Third Bank. This Cincinnati-based bank with more than 21k employees has even made it part of their brand tagline; they are “The curious bank”.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was “a curious shipping company” that truly listened to and understood its customers? This position in the market is up for grabs.

the curious bank

Interestingly, a global study published mid-2013 showed that while 97% of executives say they are customer-centric, only 20% have the initiatives in place to really back it up.

And let’s make one thing clear: Customer-centricity doesn’t begin with you talking to your customers. It begins with you listening to them.

3 major threats to the shipping industry

In my humble opinion (keep in mind, I’ve only worked in the industry for two years), the three major threats to the shipping industry in the next 5 to 15 years are:

1) An unattractive industry. Honestly, I don’t think the shipping industry in its current shape and form has what it takes to attract the next generation of talents. Here, I’m referring to Generation Y or the millennials – those born between the early 80s and the early 00s.

According to Dan Schwabel, a New York Times bestselling author and an expert on millennials in the workforce, the millennials are completely different than older generations with regards to workplace priorities.

Millennials want freedom and flexibility over a higher salary. They take on more projects outside of their job description and collapse organizational hierarchies. They want a transparent workplace that is open, honest and ethical. They even want to be able to share their salaries with their co-workers.

The question is: Will the shipping industry be able to attract talents from this generation? The short answer is no, I’m afraid.

2) Local production. 3D printing is a very hyped phenomenon these days, probably for a good reason. The 3D printing technology is developing rapidly, and today you can even manufacture jewellery and food [sic] with 3D printers.

Many industry analysts believe the 3D printing technology will continue to develop to the extent where production is (again) done locally, even in your own home. This will cause a major disruption for global trade and the logistics industry.

3) The sharing economy. Finally, there’s the so-called collaborative economy. First came social media which socialized and democratized the media landscape. Next up is the physical world. The trend is that consumers bypass companies and get what they need from each other.

Examples are AirBnB, a peer-to-peer holiday rental site, and Uber, a car sharing service app. It’s not difficult to imagine that companies will soon find smarter ways to ship their goods via the crowd.

The best starting point

So where does all of this leave us? And what does it mean with regards to social media?

Among other things, it means that when a company decides for or against having a presence on social media it should also take the long-term digital movements and trends into consideration.

I’m convinced that social media is one of the best starting points if you want to prepare for the future and avoid being disrupted by the new digital and social technologies. Not least because it’s cross-functional and has proven to be an effective silo-breaker.

And so, we’re back where we started. It all begins with Facebook and Twitter.

NB: This post was originally written for Asia Shipping Media and published on e.g. the Maritime CEO website.

1 thought on “An open letter to the shipping industry: Don’t underestimate the power of social and sharing”

  1. I came across this article searching for ideas about social media. The innovative ideas about a “curious shipping company” are great, really enjoyed reading this – definitely learned something.

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