One hundred and 40 characters at a time, a customer service revolution is in the works. And the command center for one company is someplace completely unexpected: atop a shopping mall.
Nestled in an unmarked office above a men's clothing store and a Mongolian grill, Publix is boldly forging into the social media fray. Like many companies, the supermarket chain is making a significant investment to manage its presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, and the like.
"It's an entire department, an entire team," said Shannon Patten, who oversees the grocer's social media efforts.
We half expected to see the trappings of a Silicon valley start-up. Think: Foosball tables and bean bags.
This is serious business. Publix's social media wing is made up of everyday office cubicles, conference rooms, desktop computers, and telephones. The surroundings are ordinary, but the staff boasts some extraordinary credentials.
Patten said six college-educated communications specialists, with backgrounds in journalism or new media, work rotating shifts seven days a week.
"We decided that if we're going to do it, we're going to do it right," she said.
Publix's Facebook posts are often visual delights, featuring photos of scrumptious bakery items. At other times, customer engagement is as simple as asking Twitter followers to complete this sentence: "I love Publix because _______."
The Tweets are short; the Facebook posts are eye candy. They feel whimsical. And that's what Public wants.
But they are anything but willy-nilly.
Strategy underlies each post or Tweet. Like any other business venture, the supermarket conducts research, holds meetings, and follows a strategy.
All of that just for a Tweet.
But corporate media experts insist a big bet on social media is a modern must.
"It's an extension of customer service," said Jennifer Straw of Marketing in Color in Tampa.
Straw said a brand that is not actively engaged with customers on social media risks its integrity, since corporate silence does not equal customer silence.
"Users are going to be talking about you anyway," she said.
As much as big companies like Publix aim to carefully craft and perfectly time their social media message, customer feedback throws them curveball. And it is constant.
Forget the mailbox. Forget the telephone. Straw said Twitter and Facebook are many consumers' preferred method of communication.
"Because it's immediate," she continued.
Publix knows that firsthand. The supermarket has nearly 2 million talkative "fans" on Facebook and 40,000 followers on Twitter.
"It's like rapid fire," said Tiana, one of Publix's social media experts. "It's pretty constant."
If only the customers' inquiries were as simple as the posts the team plans.
"There are some very complex questions," said manager Abby Pemberton.
Pemberton said her team's goal is to respond to customer inquiries in real-time, gathering information from the user, interacting with the store or department in question, and offer a reply that's useful.
And it all happens at light speed – with a reminder of its roots right next door.
Publix's social media squad is seated right next the original social media of sorts: its call center.
"By design, we are all under one roof," Patten added.