If you were compiling a list of companies that would get Twitterers tweeting and Facebook fans liking, a container shipping giant is unlikely to be in the top ten.
But that hasn't stopped Maersk Line garnering more than one million 'likes' on its Facebook page, thanks to an unusual strategy of turning even the most negative stories, such as an accidental whale slaughter, into social media hits.
Now Jonathan Wichmann, the man behind the Danish company's success, is planning his exit, but says that he believes that the company will be able to build on his legacy. 'I always saw Maersk as a project,' he explains. 'The really fun bit was starting this up.'
Maersk's social media success has shocked even Wichmann, who launched the company's strategy in 2011. 'I was surprised by people's positive reaction, because the company is business-to-business, and the industry is very conservative,' he says. 'But I was given the mandate, and they set me loose. I'm not sure whether they really knew what I was doing.'
Wichmann built the company's following using a simple mantra Social media is about communicating, not marketing. He played on Maersk's 'great stories and a lot of really visual concepts', and used these as the basis for its social media presence.
So, as well as pictures of vast vessels on Facebook, the company posts blogs charting a day in the life of a container ship and maps of their presence.
As well as Facebook, the company is active on Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn. It is also using Instagram to track down lost containers from its ships, with a project that allows people to photograph a container on a beach and upload the picture and serial number. Its 500 ships lose, on average, 18 containers every year.
Wichmann says that the different forms of social media are used by different types of people. 'Customers tend to connect with us on Linked In,' he says. Only around 15 per cent to 17 per cent of the company's Facebook fans are customers - the rest are just there because they are interested in ships or enjoy the pictures and stories.
Even if the average shipping geek (Wichmann refers to them as 'casual friends') is never going to use a container ship themselves, Wichmann says that interaction with them is still worthwhile. 'You never know - they might say something positive about us to someone, or they might want to come and work for us.'
More than customer relationships
He adds: 'Our main goal is to use social media to get closer to our customers, but at the same time we realise that there's much more to gain from it, such as better press coverage, higher employee engagement, more brand awareness and even bringing in high-level insights and intelligence from shipping experts around the world.'
On the employee engagement side, Wichmann says that the social media buzz the company has generated has managed to make shipping cool. 'People say My mum is following Maersk on Facebook. It doesn't seem like a boring company.'
Employees are encouraged to tweet, write and even make Maersk videos, and Wichmann says they are his greatest allies in making the strategy a success. 'There is so much talent among employees, and people would often rather see something made by them than something trying to be clever from a professional company.'
Wichmann's philosophy on social media is to be real, genuine and not to cover up the negatives. 'Maersk isn't perfect,' he says. 'But we have nothing to hide.' The company took its first big leap in this area when its container ship Maersk Norwich accidentally hit a whale in June and arrived in Rotterdam Harbour with the twelve-metre carcass lying over its bow.
'I talked to my manager and the first reaction was 'not social media for this one',' he recalls. 'I was advised to keep it low, like a lot of other companies would. But my reaction was that this was not right. Maersk is trustworthy and admirable, not perfect. Social media gave us a chance to explain what happened instead of other people telling the story for us.'
Transparency and honesty matter
Wichmann persuaded the company to do a test, putting up a Q & A explaining how this had happened. 'We tried to be genuine and show how we were affected by it. It's a sad story.'
When the whale story hit Facebook, Maersk held its breath. 'But people didn't just call us whale killers' recalls Wichmann. 'They said that they were sad too about the whale.' They also shared the content widely. The company also launched a Pinterest tribute page In memory of the Maersk Norwich Whale.
Since then, Maersk has shared the negative as well as the positive. 'We don't make a fuss but we do put them in.'
Now, having made Maersk a success from a social media point of view, Wichmann is moving on to become a consultant for Wibroe, Duckert & Partners, in the hope that he can take the same strategy into other companies. He says that the biggest thing he hopes to teach people is that you shouldn't just be using social media to try to sell stuff. 'Companies can feel like they are being very engaged on social media and doing competitions and stuff, but really they are just trying to get people to buy their products. They are not joining the party or using social media to tell stories.'
If you spam people, Wichmann says, they won't respect your company. 'With social media, the users have finally taken control. They themselves control what they want to see, and they don't want to follow companies that are only there to sell to them.
'I see untold potential in just being there and being loved by people.' And if a big shipping company can achieve that with some nice pictures and a lot of honesty, almost anybody can.