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The Revolutionary Promise of Social Business

Posted by Brian Solis on Nov 11, 2013 3:15:32 PM

Here’s something you probably don’t know about social media: It’s designed to help businesses become social, and not necessarily intended to deliver traditional value or return on investment (ROI).


It’s true: Current social media may not result in business value despite your best efforts. I’m sure that will change in due time, but for now, expect to face a long and frustrating road to convince executives of social’s true potential and bottom-line impact. Getting to the next level will take a strong, coordinated effort between the business and technologists. It will also require revolutionary — not evolutionary — transformation and change.


In my research over the years, I’ve found that a fair share of what we call “social media strategies” by big brands is, in fact, antisocial in nature. By this I mean that programs might look social, but they’re generally still just clever marketing campaigns disguised as conversations and engagement. While customers and businesses look to each other for online social engagement, relationships are rarely sustained beyond initial branding, awareness and attention.


For social media to evolve into a legitimate social business driver, a strong link between strategy and business value is required. So far, that link is largely missing. Beyond that, you have to amp it up even further — changing many current practices and organizational roles and structures.


Unfulfilled Social Promises

One of social media’s promises, and there are many, was to break down the silos of the organization so people could work together to deliver a more meaningful and integrated customer experience. The irony is that the silos it aimed to break down became the extremely siloed model for social media within the enterprise today.


Over the past year, Charlene Li and I conducted two Altimeter Group surveys among executives and social strategists to gauge their maturity as a social business. We defined a social business as one where business objectives and social media strategies were aligned across the enterprise. The two studies have just been released and from both we learned that social media is primarily operating out of a dedicated silo within the business, where by default it is not in direct alignment with other groups across the enterprise — even those that may also run social media programs. This disconnect creates confusion inside and outside of the company, as multiple social programs operate as “bolt-ons” to existing channel programs, usually owned by marketing, rather than as a unified business system.


In our 2012 survey, Charlene and I found that marketing represented the largest ownership of social media strategies (40%) followed by corporate communications/PR at 26 percent. [See related blog here.]

solis chart.JPG

When anything is run by one group, programs tend to inherit the characteristics of the host team. In this case, marketing does what marketing does best: sparking engagement around the brand. And although engagement implies two-way conversation, it actually represents traditional broadcast channels where people can respond. If someone needs service, wants to provide feedback or is seeking direction, social media is inadequate and often reveals the broken links in how poorly companies collaborate and communicate inside the organization.


Fix the Disconnects

Earlier this year, Charlene and I also published a report that documented the Six Stages of Social Business Transformation. We looked at how social media strategy within enterprise organizations evolves, and also how the supporting infrastructure adapts along with it. We were not so surprised to learn that only 28 percent of strategists and executives felt that their business had a holistic approach to social media. We also learned that only 34 percent of businesses felt their social strategy was connected to business outcomes. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between social media and ROI when lines of business and business functions are simply not working together under a common vision to drive business-level outcomes. As stated, social media is not designed to show traditional ROI.


How will this be resolved? Several notable analyst firms are reporting that within the next few years the CMO will outspend the CIO in technology investments. In an article in AdAge, Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes recently quoted her boss as saying that as a result of IT, the CMO may have a better pulse on the business than the CFO.


I don’t see this as a CMO-led coup d'état against the C-suite as much as a digital revolution where the roles between a CIO and the CMO will overlap and complement one another. A recent study conducted by the CMO Council found that 80 percent of marketers and 88 percent of IT experts believe that collaboration is critical to ensure customer-centricity, and both roles are changing. Marketing is now responsible for the customer journey and the lifecycle, and IT must look beyond maintaining and upgrading existing systems.


Technology investments alone won’t solve problems or help companies compete successfully, but they can enable collaborative problem solving and identify social media opportunities.


Change and Challenges

Danna Vetter, VP of consumer strategy at Aramark, led a significant social transformation effort over the past few years that brought together disparate groups. The plan was to recognize shifts in markets and also customer behavior and then reverse-engineer strategies and technology investments accordingly. But her team also set out to change how the company worked. “Remember: It’s a change-management challenge as much as anything else,” Vetter shared with me in a recent interview.


The organizations that are getting closest to demonstrating ROI and unifying social media not only tie social strategies to business objectives, but they have CMOs and CIOs working together along with other critical business functions — such as legal, finance and HR — toward a common vision. That vision articulates how the company will use social media to improve customer and employee relationships and experiences. The end goal is to create a plan where technology, supported by new processes and systems, will pave the way to greater profitability, brand relevance and positive sentiment.


Julie Bornstein, SVP digital at Sephora, also led a major business transformation to effectively understand the company’s digital customer. For those facing similar endeavors, she shared this advice:


1) Be clear on what you want the outcome to be and then structure support properly.


2) Invest in people and resources to make sure it’s not a one-time hit. Only take on as much as you can continue to actively support.


3) Tie social media to what’s core to your company and for the consumer in your space.


What many people fail to realize or tell you is this: The opportunity presented by social media is transformative. While you may evolve slowly from social media to social business, a complete digital revolution is really required for a business to reap the biggest benefits. As Aramark’s Vetter demonstrated, strategists must think less like social media experts and more like change agents. Only then will social business become mainstream business.




Brian Solis is principal at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology. He is a prominent thought leader and author in new media. His new book, What's the Future of Business? (Wiley, 2013), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships can unfold and flourish.



Related Content

For more on CIO/CMO relations, see this blog

And this article in Smart Enterprise magazine

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