From a social brand to a social business

by Simon Collister in News Google+

I spoke at an IBM Social Business breakfast briefing the other week and was tasked with addressing the following question:

“Social brand vs social business – is there a correct order of play?”

It’s a good question and one that seems to be being asked by clients and the wider industry alike. Luckily it’s also a question we’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about and working on recently.

I think we would argue that while there might not be a correct order of play, there is certainly a preferred order of play – perhaps best conceived as a divide between a ‘Managed’ or Forced’ approach (more on this shortly).

In our experience we are often approached by clients who want to use social media to become social brands. That is, using social technology and tools to add value to the customer experience through two-way dialogue. At the heart of becoming a social brand lies devising and implementing a social media marketing strategy to get people talking about, sharing or engaging with the brand (which we think we’re pretty good at!).

So far, so good. But we find that becoming a social brand quickly starts to highlight the need to become a ‘social business’. Once we begin implementing social media marketing programs we quickly start to see the reality that striving to become a social brand goes beyond generating positive word of mouth, driving awareness, consideration or sales.

By its very nature. social media also enables, indeed empowers, customers to have a voice and to talk back to the organisation. While this notion might not be a new one, becoming a social brand really brings home the reality of what the Cluetrain Manifesto taught us all those years ago.

This realisation, then, starts to highlight the need for a client’s social media marketing efforts to be internally aligned with other departments – and from experience the urgency for this to happen grows exponentially as clients’ social media marketing program progresses, their community grows and they become increasing integrated into the online communities within which they increasingly find themselves operating.

What we have learnt from this is that as soon as a client’s starts to think about or takes steps towards becoming a successful social brand, then it’s time to start thinking about how this might start to impact on other departments within their organisation.

For example, in the consultancy team here at We Are Social we often find ourselves thinking about and implementing social customer service planning work, helping clients align their outbound, marketing function with inbound customer service feedback; enabling them to resource, manage and learn from their customers across the organisation.

As social starts to spread within the organisation the client starts moving along the path form being “simply” a Social Brand and towards being a Social Business. To return the original question: is there a correct order of play? We like to think that the organic growth of ‘social’ within an organisation is best conceptualised as the Managed approach.

The beauty of this approach is that it enables organisations to start becoming (more) social businesses (and to reap all the rewards being a social organisation brings) in a way that is:

  • scaled – which helps organisation manage costs and resources effectively
  • phased – allowing us to plan, implement, test and improve processes gradually
  • continually evaluated – enabling us to build a business case for deeper, enterprise-level integration

In opposition to this approach is what I consider the Forced approach. In my experience this approach tends to be triggered by external forces – hence an organisation is ‘forced’ respond. Often, the external forces in question are social media empowered customers or stakeholders that have had an unsatisfactory product or service experience that keep pushing at the edges of an organisation eventually forcing them to open up, listen, engage and make changes – either to their customer care strategy or even to their business strategy.

In either case, the outcome is that the organisation is forced to become more social. It’s not the ideal approach as it is undoubtedly messy and unmanaged and potentially leads to financial damage for the organisation in question, through either duplication of processes; loss of revenue; urgent technology purchases and crisis consultancy or reputational damage.

While we have seen the forced approach create some notable examples in the longer-term, such as Dell who’s failure to engage with socially networked customers resulted in them building their Ideastorm platform to embrace customers and involve them in the business’ R&D processes, the shorter-term consequences are less than ideal.

So, to answer the original question: in our experience the preferred route to building a more social business is to plan and manage the process and to grow from bottom-up, building the business case and experimenting one department at time, rather than wait for it to become an urgent need. Of course, that’s just our own experience. We’d love to hear yours. :)

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