How Social Engagement Skyrocketed at Western Union

Western Union conjures up visions of wiring money, not viral social content, but vice president of social media Karen O’Brien would like you to take a closer look.

Western Union conjures up visions of wiring money, not viral social content, but vice president of social media Karen O’Brien would like you to take a closer look.

O’Brien currently oversees a social media presence encompassing some 8.2 million followers on 10 platforms—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Vine, WeChat and blogs—in more than 200 countries and territories, as well as 65 individual country pages.

Western Union marks the 12th brand where O’Brien has worked on social efforts, with that list also including Microsoft, Starbucks and T-Mobile USA, and she described the situation when she came on board in early 2013 as “very small followings, minimal engagement and an untapped source of business intelligence.” However, she feels that the company being “a little late to the party in some ways gave us a little bit of an advantage,” such as a better idea of what types of content worked and didn’t work.

Although Western Union is a financial-services company, its social team focuses on the reasons why its customers send money around the world, and O’Brien said, “Our customers equate the reasons for sending money with our brand,” adding that her team “built social marketing on the connection with the emotions of why people send money: Our customers are more engaged than at any other brand I’ve ever worked at.”

The team focuses on culturally relevant content, covering topics such as family, food, travel and holidays, with food playing a fairly prominent role.

O’Brien highlighted two examples of social initiatives that turned out to be big successes for Western Union.

In #WUHomeCooked, the company set up a camera at its Times Square location, and 24 customers discussed food, family and culture.

Western Union invited three of those customers to come back and elaborate on their stories, and when they did so, they were surprised by a dining table in the middle of the store, at which they were served home-cooked meals from the city’s top chefs, based on input from their families, who were secretly contacted.

The three customers were also presented with plane tickets to go home.

More recently, John Lloyd Cruz, the “George Clooney” of the Philippines, participated in a Facebook Live video last month on the company’s Filipino-targeted page, WUPinoy.

O’Brien said the Philippines is a large money-receiving country for Western Union, so her team tries to target Filipinos all over the world.

Western Union has managed all of these accomplishments with a small team—seven based in San Francisco, as well as 17 in Mexico City who provide customer care and support across 31 pages, 24/7/365, in five languages, typically within 20 minutes.

O’Brien said Western Union’s policy is not to hide or delete negative posts, unless they contain personal information or spam, adding “You have to allow people to say what they do and do not like. You can’t have everything be positive, or it’s not real. Our customers defend our brand.”

She added that the company sees 65 percent positive brand sentiment, versus just 9 percent negative brand sentiment.

And it starts at the top: O’Brien pointed out that Western Union CEO Hikmet Ersek is often recognized for his social media use, having recently been named Social CEO of the Week by The Social C-Suite.

Readers: Would you have imagined that a financial-services company like Western Union was so adept at social engagement?