With 2011 right around the corner and budget planning cycles in full swing, businesses are increasingly allocating dollars toward social business initiatives. The focus has plenty of justification: public social networks Twitter and Facebook have hundreds of millions of users, technology has become a topic in pop culture and daily conversations, and mainstream media have highlighted dozens of successes (and failures) of corporate social business initiatives. However, good managers will resist rolling out social tactics because “everyone else is doing it.” Formulating a sound social business strategy requires understanding the key factors driving current market opportunity:
• The changing nature of work. We have shifted to an “always-on” culture, where definitions of where and how jobs get done have radically evolved. Time-shifting, hoteling, and telecommuting are increasingly accepted as life-style choices, not just cost-cutting tactics. Kanter’s “Men and Women of the Corporation” has started to fade into obsolescence as individuals have used personal publishing tools to assert authority. For example, in one organization over a century old, management was upset because individuals were “disrupting” traditional voting processes by voicing their concerns using social media—and being heard.
• A shift to cultures of public sharing. Social psychology tells us that humans harbor a fundamental need to connect. In more analog times, the public display of this inclination was a 6,000-card Rolodex on an executive’s desk. Maybe two. Today, professionals put their networks on display via LinkedIn, along with peer-to-peer interactions, recommendations, and other content that had formerly been private. The benefits for brands are clear: social channels offer content distribution at close to zero cost.
• Evolution of personal technology. The Blackberry that most executives carry around in their pocket packs more computing power than many of the international business machines that helped them rise up through the corporate ranks. We are living in the midst of a perfect storm combining powerful hardware, fast networks, and robust applications, allowing productivity to skyrocket. Consumer technology increasingly drives corporate technology preferences, as IT departments cannot avoid end user demands forever.
Taking advantage of the trends requires a holistic approach to framing up the business opportunity. Most social media focuses solely on consumers and prospects, but this is only one of three key areas. Social strategy needs to consider customers and business partners as well as employees. By limiting focus to one or two of these areas, businesses miss opportunity presented by current trends in work, society, and technology. Instead, managers should envision their organizations as social businesses, taking their full enterprise ecosystem into account.
An integrated vision leads planning for social business initiatives and should draw upon existing business constructs. The easiest way to set up new ideas for success is to target them on core business needs. By aligning social strategy with the current operations, managers ensure that their time and effort will be well spent and learnings will be relevant to future projects. Building an integrated vision requires assessment of the organization’s current state—its skills, policies, processes, culture, and systems—and a roadmap to where this infrastructure needs to evolve in order to support effective delivery. Finally, the needs of participants in the ecosystem must be evaluated and integrated into business planning, which requires use of new tools for making sense of unstructured content and other emerging signals that employees, customers, and suppliers are transmitting every second of the day.
We have seen companies getting started with implementing social business strategies, providing examples for others to follow. Although a holistic focus guides efforts, companies need to pick somewhere to start. Based on successful initiatives, we recommend starting with a focus on one of four key areas: connections, culture, communication, or content.
• Connections: To whom are you connected and how? Traditional marketing approaches tend to take an asynchronous and transactional perspective on relationships. Businesses choose targets, send offers, track responses, adjust and repeat while hoping for better results. Taking a social business approach to connections leads to more persistent, long-term relationship management instead. At one software firm, social media was seen as an opportunity to increase propinquity among customers and employees, leading to long-term sales results. The company created and implemented a plan to employ social channels for proactive customer support, creating stronger consumer connections and increasing the likelihood of customers to recommend their products.
• Culture: Are you calibrated for success? Many organizations operate with a decentralized approach to social business management. In other words, there’s no plan in place and corporate Twitter accounts and Facebook groups pop up with no coordination—until a corporate mandate shuts them all down. A preemptive approach to organization helps set policy and guard rails to guide participation, in addition to centralizing resources and effort. At a financial services firm, the desire to participate was strong, but resources were being wasted on siloed pilot projects. By putting a centralized social business center of excellence in place to manage efforts, the firm was able to rationalize its go-to-market strategy and engage with consumers as a unified brand.
• Communication: Can you parse signal from noise? As social media channels mature, the good news is that plenty of content is being created to be mined. The bad news is that the amount of content to be mined can quickly overwhelm most market research departments. Moreover, when actionable insights are uncovered, selecting the right tool to engage can be a tricky task. “Social Architecture” can play a guiding role for companies, where charters and playbooks help operationalize strategy. At a for-profit higher education provider, this approach helps guide the efforts of its marketing department and multiple agency partners, ensuring a consistent focus on business goals.
• Content: Are you measuring for meaning? Managers must focus on measuring what they can control, not just measuring to provide content to fill up charts and graphs. The substance of social business initiatives must relate to metrics by which the business manages itself. At a beverage manufacturer, a campaign using Facebook as a backbone for a new product launch was measured closely for fan engagement, local participation, and sales results.
Formulating social business strategy requires a holistic approach, supported by an integrated vision. Today’s playing fields remain fairly flat; however, with growing budgets being devoted towards social business initiatives, creating competitive advantage will become increasingly difficult. Focusing now on connections, culture, communication, and content will help managers build and sustain a leadership position that lasts.