Many marketers may know Ted Rubin, for the enthusiastic, energetic, and undeniably personal connection he makes with nearly everyone he meets. Not only is Ted the most followed CMO on Twitter, he has one of the deepest networks of any marketer in the social arena.

In 2009, Ted started using the term “return on relationship” (or “ROR”) to describe the value that is accrued by a person or brand as they nurture a relationship. Since then, he has applied that philosophy to build massively engaged audiences of brand advocates in his role as CMO of e.l.f. Cosmetics, and as Chief Social Marketing Officer at Open Sky. Ted continues to generate ROR in his current role as Chief Social Marketing Officer at Collective Bias, a social shopper media company.

We recently sat down to talk with Ted about how digital and social marketing is changing the relationship between consumers and brands.

Ted, it seems that as consumers we’ve come to expect that every brand is present on social media. Should every brand really be on social media?

Ted: That’s a really good question, and I think what every brand has to recognize is that the term “be on social media” is a little bit of a misnomer, because we’re all on social media. Every brand is on social media. The question is, should they have their own representation via social media? Every brand has a social presence, they just may or may not be a part of it.

Losing control of the message and who is invited into conversation about a brand is one of the major challenges for marketers as they embrace social. Can marketers retain some degree of control when they enter the social fray?

Ted: I think that everyone talks about marketers being scared of social because of the questions they’ll have to answer, or the potential for people to say things that they don’t want to hear.

I wrote a blog post called “The 12 Most Important Things We Can All Control.” These are things that are really important, and that people (and brands) tend to overlook. We’re in control of what we stand for, totally in control of that. A brand has control of what they manufacture, how they manufacture it, who they hire, who they fire, and they’re in charge of the outgoing message. They’re also in control of how they respond to, and what they do with, the people that are reaching out to them. We all have control over how we react to what happens.

What we can’t control is the other side of the equation, how people react to what we do. The best way to be involved in that is to make it a conversation. That is really, really important. It’s conversing with people, hearing what they have to say, and then acting on it.

You’re all about turning that conversation into “Return on Relationship” – which makes sense to me when we’re talking about large ticket items… but in a retail or commodity business, can brands really build meaningful relationships with each and every customer? Does it make sense to try?

Ted: It’s a matter of how much you want to differentiate yourself, and take away from the commoditization of all these businesses and products by standing out, by being the one that does communicate all the time.

Duane Reade* is doing a remarkable job at that. Duane Reade has 289 stores versus Walgreen’s 8,000 stores. And they have more Twitter followers than Walmart – Walmart we’re talking here!

Those people interacting and engaging with Duane Reade are being given content that’s valuable to them. Not just coupon codes, or ways to save money, but ways to communicate, ways to hear about what’s happening in New York, products, how you can better your life. Again, content that’s relevant to the audience.

You say, “Oh my god, Duane Reade has over 295,000 Twitter followers. They can’t possibly communicate with all those people.” But guess what? Not only can they not, but they don’t have to.

Understand that most people, not only in social media, but at cocktail parties, at PTA meetings, around the water cooler, in everyday life… most people don’t communicate very actively. Most people are not the ones talking at cocktail parties. Think about it. If everybody was like me at a cocktail party, nobody would be listening!

It’s the same thing on social media. Most people build that feeling of closeness, of connection, and of communication and relationship by watching those who are communicating in public. Just because someone is not tweeting or not posting or not answering doesn’t mean that they’re not actively social. They listen to other people talk, and they’re the ones doing searches later. By communicating with some of their audience, they’re communicating with all of them.

This happened just the other day with American Airlines. You’re on Twitter and you’re watching conversations, and you see that Ted Rubin tweets out to @AmericanAir that they’re having issues.

Then, five minutes later you see @AmericanAir respond to me, you see a quick conversation back and forth. It might get taken offline to direct message, because it might be about my personal flight or credit card number or something that obviously can’t be done there, but now you just got that same good service from American Airlines.

Five people tweeted me and said, “Wow, that’s really cool how quickly they answered you. Did they resolve your problem?” “Yes, they did.” Then I swear, five people tweeted out, “Oh my god, Ted Rubin had a problem, American Airlines jumped in right away.” Think about how this spreads the social graph. What’s happening is thousands, probably millions, of people out there every day are not directly communicating with a brand, but are seeing other people’s interactions and in their own heads saying, “That could have been me.”

Speaking of airlines – are loyalty programs still relevant in this hyper-social environment?

Ted: Well, let’s talk about the value of any kind of trust and loyalty. Back in the day, 20-some-odd years ago, everybody had a loyalty program. They started in the airline industry then they moved into other areas. They were either very directive loyalty programs around their industry, or they piggy-backed, giving away some other form of “miles”. If you ask any legacy brand, everyone at one time or another had one of these programs.

Let’s talk a CEO’s language, and remember, getting CEOs and CMOs to buy into this stuff means you have to talk in their language. Don’t talk about advocacy. Don’t talk about sharing. They don’t give a s**t. What they do care about is hard facts and numbers.

Everybody can look at their loyalty programs – even traditional loyalty programs that are totally commoditized – and see the customer that’s a member of the loyalty program, invariably, will have higher lifetime value as a customer, will have a higher average order value every time they shop, and their frequency of purchase will be higher.

That’s ROI. That means if you can make a customer loyal and trust you, they are going to spend more money with you, and you will be more profitable.

Taking it back to social media – can we draw a straight line from engaging customers on social media to improving the bottom line?

Ted: It really comes down to something simple: People like to do business with people they like more than people they don’t like. People are happier buying stuff from a company they feel good about than one they don’t. Nordstrom cannot draw a straight line from that sales person coming out from behind the counter and handing a bag to the customer to increased sales, but what they can tell you is before they started doing it and after they started doing it. They can tell you about it from stores that don’t do it as well to the stores that do it better. It’s not hard to measure this stuff. I mean, you start communicating with people and you see your sales go up. Maybe that bell will go off in your head, “Oh my god, that made a difference.”

That is the ROI of ROR, right there.

Companies that do an exceptional job engaging their customers often talk about engaging their community. How do you guys tap into community at Collective Bias?

Ted: At Collective Bias, we’re all about brands and retailers in-channel, and how people make their purchases. We connect shoppers with the brands and the retailers that they use in their daily lives to drive conversation on a wide variety of social media platforms.

Our community, called Social Fabric, weaves organic social content into engaging, real life stories that, in the end, just like all kinds of media, create millions of impressions that lead to increased share of voice. That means that when people type in a search about those products, they don’t just get ingredients, they don’t just get corporate logos, they get a connected story from someone that uses that product, and ultimately, it increases sales for brands and retailers.

We’re in the media business, but we are not a network, we’re a community. Everybody supports each other. Everybody knows each other. We don’t just hand out assignments. It’s important to understand that we don’t do anything on any project or any media buy without first reaching out to members of our community who are part of [the target] demographic, and ask them, “What do you think? What would you do?” We practice what we preach.

How do you see social media changing the way brands engage their audiences 3, 4, 5 years from now?

Ted: Oh man, I’m still trying to figure out what’s going to happen 3, 4, 5 months from now!

This is more of a hope than a prediction: I’m hoping that people are going to start recognizing that a click of a button doesn’t mean making a friend. People are going to start valuing relationships a lot more and recognizing that they need to communicate, they need to meet people, they need to actually be social, and even if that’s online, it’s not just about posting stuff, but it’s about communicating with people.

To get more insights from Ted, check out his book- Return on Relationship

P.S. We covered lots more interesting topics with Ted that will appear in future posts. Stay tuned!

Want to learn more about brand loyalty and how to engage digital consumers? Check out the Get More Engagement blog.

[Note: this post first appeared on Get More Engagement which covers engagement marketing trends, tips, and advice.]

* Duane Reade is owned by Walgreen’s, and is a Collective Bias customer.

(Photo Credit: Momentum Nation)