Social media: are businesses finally growing up, sort of?

Ever since the Internet began gaining popular awareness in the mid-1990s, the topic of how businesses can productively use various new media technologies has been a subject of ongoing interest. Along the way we’ve had a series of innovations to consider: first it was the Net, and the current tool of the moment is Twitter. In between we had, in no particular order, Facebook (not that Facebook has gone away, of course), CRM, mobile (SMS, smart phones, apps), blogging, RSS and aggregation, Digg (and Reddit and StumbleUpon and Current and Yahoo! Buzz and Technorati and Del.icio.us and seemingly thousands more), targeted e-mail, YouTube, SEO, SEM, online PR and, well, you get the idea.

We certainly hear examples of businesses getting it right with new media, but in truth these cases represent a painfully small minority. With the advent of each new electronic tool we see a familiar pattern playing out.

  • First phase: nobody gets it. Despite the fact that X represents obvious potential for a wide range of businesses, uptake is slow, primarily because these technologies tend to be driven initially by either the young or technophiles (or both).
  • Second, a few agencies begin integrating X into their offerings, although all too often what they’re selling is the fad. Still, they’ll hook a client or two and “do” a pilot project. Since X is new and unproven, this “doing” is frequently conducted in a vacuum – that is, the “campaign” is implemented outside the scope of the company’s larger strategic planning. Everyone wants to see if it works before committing to it. The problem is that some of these approaches only work if they’re fully integrated. Take mobile/SMS marketing, for instance. There’s simply no way for it to work as a standalone because the nature of the technology and the carrier practices governing it make push tactics impossible. It can work beautifully if integrated with Web, print and point-of-sale, however. The result, in cases like this, is that the pilot underperforms the hype, thereby “proving” that it doesn’t work. Lesson learned – sadly, it’s the wrong lesson.
  • Eventually we reach a period where everyone, even the company’s senior execs, have heard of it, and this marks a tipping point – X is no longer mysterious and obscure by virtue of its sheer newness. At this point, more businesses may begin implementing X. However, having heard of something isn’t the same as understanding it, and this is the phase where we sometimes see companies implementing programs that aren’t really suited to them. SMS marketing campaigns, for instance, are great for some contexts and an utter waste of resources in others. Blogging can be an incredibly powerful tool, but it requires a significant level of internal commitment and an audience that’s accustomed to searching for (and acting on) product, service and business insight on the Web. Twitter can be very effective once it’s understood that it isn’t the thing itself, but is instead a tool for pushing people to the thing (often Web content).

And so on. In a nutshell, business use of new media technologies and practices has been slow to mature. It’s probably safe to say that a vast majority of companies that could be productively using various strategies either aren’t doing so at all or are doing so in a way that fails to maximize the business potential of the tool.

Corporate Ambivalence and the Tipping Point

Which raises an obvious question: why? There’s plenty of expertise in the marketplace (and many companies probably have more expertise inside their own walls than they know how to tap). Not only that, but the tools themselves are getting far more sophisticated. Witness the recent New York Times story on Sentiment Analysis, a technology that seeks to mine the Web and social networks for valuable indications about the consumer’s emotional state. Then there’s Predictive Markets, which function like stock markets and are designed to help users do a better job of predicting the behavior in various systems.

A recent report from Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law sheds some light on the issues surrounding social media adoption, and in doing so perhaps provides even broader insight on electronic media diffusion generally. According to the report:

…confidence exists in social networking as viable communication outreach, but so do worries about the potential liabilities. Concerns regarding social media use were acknowledged by some eight in 10 businesses participating in a recent national study undertaken by Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law. Fifty-one percent of senior management, marketing and human resources executives fear social media could be detrimental to employee productivity, while almost half (49%) assert that using social media could damage company reputation.

Other concerns include “confidentiality or security issues (40%)” and “simply not knowing enough about it (51%).” Despite these reservations,

  • 81% believe social media can enhance relationships with customers/clients
  • 81% agree it can build brand reputation
  • 69% feel such networking can be valuable in recruitment
  • 64% see it as a customer service tool
  • 46% think it can be used to enhance employee morale

To my point earlier about new media not being integrated into the business’s strategic planning, the study notes that:

  • “…only one in 10 executives say they have staff who spend more than 50 percent of their time on such efforts – perhaps somewhat surprising given that half of the organizations surveyed employ over 1,000 people.”
  • “…only 13 percent have included social media in their organizations’ crisis communications plans.”
  • “Only one in three businesses surveyed has a policy in place to govern social media use, and only 10 percent said they have conducted relevant employee training.”

Want more ambivalence? “40 percent of companies technically block their employees from accessing social media while at work. At the same time, 26% of companies use social media to further corporate objectives and 70% said they plan to increase the use of these new opportunities.”

At this point it seems clear that while businesses are generally intrigued by the potential, fear and uncertainty are still winning the war.

My comments on the tipping point above refer mainly to the transition from one type of dysfunction to another. However, with each passing day we inch a little closer to a moment where organizations are finally capable of a mature evaluation of new research, marketing and communication tools. In this innovation-savvy near future, emerging technologies and practices will be quickly assessed and implemented in accordance with the company’s strategic goals. How will we know when this moment is approaching? The clue lies in this critically important observation:

Much of senior management’s direct experience with social media appears to be reactive versus proactive, an interesting fact given the confidence they express in these new mediums. The majority (72%) of executives say that they, personally, visit social media sites at least weekly to read what customers may be saying about their company (52%), and to routinely monitor a competitors’ use of social networking (47%). One in three search social media sites to see what their employees are sharing (36%); or check the background of a prospective employee (25%). (Emphasis added.)

There it is: reactive vs. proactive. Social media remains something to keep an eye on, but these executives have not yet reached a point where they’re comfortable integrating it into their overall plan for addressing the marketplace.

Once upon a time there was probably a period where business leaders kept a wary eye on that newfangled printing press, for the time being choosing to rely on their tried-and-true army of scribes for important publishing tasks. Perhaps in the late 19th Century there were companies that eschewed the telephone, instead building their communications practices and policies around the established telegraph. And perhaps I’m being unduly snarky. But the point is that we’re clearly in the general vicinity of a tipping point, and to some of us the cautious behavior of many corporate leaders seems a little like having a grandmother who’s afraid to try programming a digital alarm clock.

Strategy to Execution: Bridging the Gulf

A big part of the lag we’re experiencing between innovation and implementation (and strategic integration) derives from the insane pace of technological advance over the past few years. If we consider that state of marketing and communication in, say, 1970, things were much as they had been in 1960 and 1950 and so on. Sure, there had been incremental advances in things like publishing technology, but a senior exec, 30 years removed from his first job in the trenches (and senior execs were pretty much all “hims” at that point), could sit in the C suite and consider strategy and tactical approaches from a position of knowledge. The IBM Selectric was a big step up from the old manual typewriter that he used right out of college, but it was still a typewriter, and if you set it on the desk in front of him he could quickly figure it out.

Then, the world didn’t change appreciably over the span of 20 years. Now, though… Imagine if you’d put that same exec in suspended animation in 1989 and you thawed him out today. Unless he were just naturally comfortable with technology that he’d never seen, you might as well have propelled him a hundred years into the future. The basic tech of today’s workplace would be massively confusing, and this is before you ever asked him about developing a social media policy.

There is significant social media know-how in the company, however. Probably every employee under the age of 50 has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and/or a LinkedIn profile. Many of them read blogs and a good number of them (especially the ones with children over the age of 10) text. Most have visited YouTube. Most have consulted various online forums when considering purchases. The younger employees live and breathe social media, and in that particular segment of the population lies a huge amount of knowledge about how new media work.

However, since they’re younger, they lack the kind of broad experience needed to run organizations. Precocious or not, very few 20-somethings are ready for the C suite.

The problem, then, is that the company has seasoned senior-level strategic expertise and it has vast knowledge about social media. And never the twain shall meet. These two things, which need to be fused if a business is to develop a truly effective new media footing, lie at opposite ends of the corporate spectrum.

The solution: these organizations must develop bridge mechanisms. The most logical source lies in between, with the middle-level directors and managers who routinely touch both senior leadership and the front lines. They likely have a good measure of first-hand new media experience, and many of them are strategically capable. (Some are tracking toward C-level positions, in fact.) And given the generational character of the average company (if we might over-generalize for a moment), we’re probably talking about a cohort that brings a healthy entrepreneurial bent to their work. They’re comfortable trying new things, they’re comfortable with innovation, and most importantly, they’re accustomed to dealing with leaders who don’t quite get what they’re up to half the time.

In an environment like this, a senior leadership that’s willing to embrace new media marketing and communication tools can vest this junior leadership/middle management layer with the resources and stroke necessary to fully integrate emerging tech and best practices into how the company does business.

There will come a time – maybe soon – when emerging marketing and communications tools will be treated the same way that conventional advertising and PR are treated today. First, though, leadership must embrace the potential and empower those in their organizations who are positioned to drive success. Once businesses accept that this is about when, not if, social media strategy becomes an imperative, not an option.

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