A few years ago, when I’d suggest that social media would disrupt many business models and core organisational functions, I would wait for the first eyebrow in the audience to get raised. I’d explain how corporates would eventually need to migrate from one-way, top-down, broadcast marketing channels of their choice to multi-directional social engagement on the social media platforms most likely to be used by prospects. Power was rapidly shifting to an increasingly-informed customer, reliant on the advice of friends and trust networks as opposed to influence from mainstream media advertising. Social media would not just impact marketing, but the entire corporate culture.
These days, the conversation is as follows. A marketing executive has commissioned a professionally-designed Facebook campaign page at the behest of the web agency (newly reinvented as a ‘social media consultancy’) or simply ‘because everyone is doing it, it’s free and I’m told it’s great for SEO.’ The executive has been waiting a couple of weeks for nearly one thousand ‘likes’ on the page to transform into ‘a minimum of 300 incremental sales’ to meet her targets. She’s worried that although the iPad competition went well, she’s not sure the people who submitted their pictures and email addresses will become new loyal customers, after all – in fact, some of them may be fakes.
She’s wondering also whether she should quickly go and put money back into print advertising or an online advert on the newspaper’s site, because ‘that works instantly in a small place like this’ – and it’s almost the cost of an iPad anyway. Perhaps, the executive should take a picture with the winner of the iPad and send it in a press release to all the media. The web agency pitches to develop an iPhone app for a reasonable price. The trouble is the CEO doesn’t really see how this social media stuff fits in the business, although his son managed to get some of his Facebook friends to like the company page anyway.
It seems as if the gold rush is over before it even started. We know social media has become all pervasive in our lives and how user-access media itself is ever-changing to accommodate the demand for social applications: eMarketer estimates that by 2013, the combined installed base of smart phones and browser-equipped enhanced phones will exceed 1.82 billion units, eclipsing the total of 1.78 billion PCs. The customer is increasingly mobile and informed. One of the largest areas of disruptions is in retail; shoppers are packing smart phones and tablets with retailer apps and using them to hunt for bargains, product information, and to find almost everything on their shopping list.
Yet, for many companies who invested in social media engagement, the outlay has not met expectations of instant returns. Most corporates have no idea what metrics to use to measure success. We are in this moment of stasis – where smaller companies dive into the media without a strategy, and where larger corporates are developing sustainable change programmes to socialise their brands and inculcate social business in their core processes. The additional challenge is that trust in institutions is in freefall. The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer featuring results from 25 countries shows an overall decline in trust in institutions globally, with steep declines in the levels of trust in government and business. Significantly, trust and transparency are now just as important to corporate reputation as the quality of products and services. For the fifth year in a row, NGOs are the most trusted institutions: media, heavily influenced by citizen journalism, was the only institution to see an increase in trust over the past year.
One thing hasn’t changed. Rather than obsessing about the tools, corporates need to first focus on how the customer’s behaviour is changing because of the tools. Only once the implications of this change on core business have been understood can you start to plan on how to socialise your business.
The following set of pointers is based on current best practices in corporates approaching social businesses in a strategic manner:
Prepare to break down the silos. The media has changed but your business is probably still organised the old way, with departments like marketing, sales, PR, customer service and product development operating in traditional silos that do not necessarily focus directly on customer needs. Social business planning looks at multiple operations across the organisation and identifies opportunities for networking and integration to facilitate doing business in a more social and responsive manner. Many social media initiatives fail because of a lack of internal communication, co-ordination, integration and buy-in – often symptoms of a closed business culture.
Get into learning mode. Use the social technologies to listen to and learn from customers who are already speaking – and then from your competitors and their customers. Social business involves harnessing both external forces (the social brand – which lives in the voice of customers) and internal ones (the social enterprise).
Use what you’re learning to develop your social business plan. This is the blueprint for the transformation of your organisation. It focuses on social technologies to bridge the gap between external and internal stakeholders and create shared value, identifying strategies and programmes for a more connected way of doing business. It is an essential input into the overall company business plan.
Align social media objectives to business objectives. Prepare and align internal roles, policies, processes and education with their specific business objectives. Social business is a profound change that impacts most departments in the organisation.
Make social central. Empower the champion(s) of any initiative at the outset. Social business is not an afterthought and cuts across the organisation. There are different models for organising social from centralised and hub and spoke to totally decentralised. It all depends on the specific business culture and size of corporate.
Commit to investing in content. That’s not rolling out PR or corporate content, or some ‘clever’ link-baiting, but the development of your own material and curation of relevant third-party content add value to your community of interest and influencers and differentiate you from the competition. Yes, it will cost you time and money.
It’s still about People, Process, Product. Think about social media as a connective tissue between these. In the old system, you had gatekeepers controlling flows of information. Social media can revolutionise old paradigms. Walmart recently announced that 90% of service refinement comes from feedback from Twitter. It requires not just an investment in HR and response teams – but also a willingness to change old practices.
Avoid the classic mistake of buying a tool before addressing the issue of effective monitoring and response. If you still think that social media is only interesting for ‘marketing’ as opposed to customer engagement, it’s best to realise that social media is slow-burn marketing.
Count what matters. If you’re using social media tools for customer service, focus on support KPIs such as response times, resolution rates, and satisfaction scores. Use different metrics for different people within the organisation. You can measure social media success but if you have aligned your programmes with business objectives, you should focus on measuring the latter, not the technologies.
Resist the temptation to obsess about influence. Tools like Klout, based on algorithms are pretty meaningless in micro-markets like Malta. We rely on SEO as some yardstick of success but Google is changing its search algorithm all the time. The online clamour is increasing and our chance to get attention is getting increasingly smaller. Making “attention” a synonym for “influence” is nonsense: sentiment analysis is equally nonsensical.
Make social work in concert with your other initiatives. Putting all your focus on a Facebook campaign and abandoning other channels is just plain daft. Conversely, when budgets are limited, you have to ensure that you are not over-stretched.
Acknowledge the need for digital literacies. New literacies, together with our basic literacies of reading and writing, are required to help us cope with information overload, navigate our way through the social web and teach our children skills we wrongly assume they are now born with. Projects like CodeYear are part of a growing movement to introduce programming as a cornerstone of primary education and co-learning. Howard Rheingold’s latest research is a great point of departure on the subject.
Everything points towards a more human, personalised way of conducting business. It may be a way of beating your competition and opening new markets. Most probably, it means re-thinking the way you do business. It’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. And yet, it’s likely to be inevitable, as the new generations of Smartphone-toting consumers with Point-Know-Buy technologies can find out about (if not buy) almost anything they encounter in the real world, anytime. The disruption of our technologies of life is irreversible and relentless