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Social Networking: Open for Business

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Enterprise Social Networking & Collaboration [June 2011]
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As anyone who reads these articles regularly knows, I came late to the party when it comes to business social networking. Or social business. Or social networking for business. (We really need to standardize on a term for it.)

I can remember writing in these very pages that I thought, in so many words, that social software was too lightweight for serious business application, and was potentially a losing proposition due to its risk factors and its time-sinking properties. For many of the reasons companies don't allow videogames on the corporate computers, I could see similar arguments against social. Me personally, I still don't Twitter, or tweet, or whatever it's called. I keep thinking that I'll get around to it, but this old dog just never finds the energy to learn a new trick.

So it was with some interest balanced with a dose of skepticism that I decided to talk with one of the bright, young proponents of social business. Kimberly Edwards is the very knowledgeable and delightful program manager for collaborative content management at OpenText. She has been around the governance, risk, compliance (GRC) area for a while, but seems to have taken on a role as "evangelist" for OpenText's foray into the social business networking (dang, what to call it?) world.

She seemed like a great place to start, and she was.

"How'd you get into this?" I asked Kim one day a couple weeks ago. "Well, customers started telling me, ‘We want to get into social.' And I would say, ‘OK. Why?' And they'd say, ‘I was hoping you'd tell me...'"

As Kim tells it, these conversations took one of two basic streams: "One, I call it the social business," she explained. "This is where organizational productivity is the goal. The other stream is more of a consumer focus; call it the social Web. This group was pretty happy internally, but wanted to improve their brand and reputation and use social tools to better go to market, etc. What I realized is that the same principles apply to both streams: you have to monitor, respond and react."

So, I asked, when you first address one of these people who want to get into social, how do you help them determine their ultimate goal? "First of all, you can't say you want to ‘do social media.' You have to ask yourself, ‘How can I apply social media? The reason should not be, ‘because everyone else is doing it.' It should be to solve a business problem. If that business problem is a crappy reputation based on your poor customer service, then you can start there. Create a community with the goal of creating better customer service," she said.

"Companies have moved far beyond using their websites as advertisements. They're using them as channels for communication with customers. A lot of companies are changing their ways—they have had ‘top-down' websites that advertised the brand as a one-way message. But now they want to incorporate social media features such as blogs, or comments or ratings, so customers can: Talk to us (step one); then allow us to talk back to them (step two); then get our customers talking to each other (step three). And they're getting great success with that."

Are they? Is it paying off? "If they're doing it right, it is!" she claimed. "For example, if you've created a sense of community, and a sense of ‘wisdom of the crowd,' and someone comes in and speaks poorly of your company or product, what often happens is that the other customers step in and address that complaint, or explain the fix... the company doesn't get involved at all!"

But there are levels at which some of this "customer interaction" doesn't seem like a fit, I argued. For example, if I want to buy a pair of shoes, I don't need someone telling me what a great experience they had with those shoes. But if I want to buy a car, I will want testimonials. "That may be true for you," Kim laughed. "You probably buy more cars than me, but I guarantee I buy more shoes!" (I told you she was delightful.)

But it's a point well taken: social interaction has entered the bloodstream of the buying public. Kim continued: "As another personal example, most of the shopping sites I use are not e-commerce sites in the traditional branded sense; they are aggregations of customers who come together and shop purely based on the recommendations they get from one other. People trust their peers more than the brands themselves. There's a community sense of conversation. It brings back that humanizing factor. But I also like that I can now talk directly to the brand, if I want to. We don't have time to go to all the stores and talk to the manager. But I CAN go to Pepsi and post a comment and have it read and reacted to. That shifts the mindset, because people can now sense that they are getting something valuable out of the interaction."

Re-Thinking The Social Strategy

At this point, I was beginning to get a glimmer that, despite Kim's optimism, business was probably not as glitter and unicorns and candy mountains as all that. Somebody has got to be trying to game it. There have to be companies that try to manipulate social networking toward their own goals and to make themselves look better in the marketplace than they deserve to look. "That's when you see it go bad. I would not endorse that. You can't just say, ‘This is our new marketing vehicle. We're going to send out a bunch of YouTube ads and see if they resonate.' We've seen plenty of examples when that's gone bad," agreed Kim.

Kim likes to talk about "re-thinking the social strategy," as though they already had one to re-think. I wondered whether there are actually very many companies already at that "second-generation" level in their social strategies. "Honestly, no," she said. "Most are still on their first generation. But it's also true that most businesses—I just read 87%—are now using some form of social media."

Here's the typical scenario, according to Kim. "In the first stage, they say, ‘Let's put up a FaceBook page.' Then they realize that nobody is going to it. What they come to realize is that when they first posted it, they really didn't have an objective in mind. They just wanted a FaceBook page because everyone else had one. But they didn't keep the content fresh, they didn't provide a reason for people to come to it, they didn't drive people to the page in any way," she said. "They also often don't provide any way to post to the page; they lock it down so you can only read it. That's a one-way channel. It doesn't create an opportunity for conversation. I've seen a lot of brands do that."

But all this interacting comes at a cost, does it not? Companies are now required to put people in place who monitor not only their own websites, but also public sites in general, and who can properly respond. And that has to an expensive skill. "Yes, there's a cost," admitted Kim, "but our customers weigh that against the cost of NOT doing it. Compare the cost of having a few people monitoring the Web with the cost of not even knowing where your brand is being mentioned," she suggested.

The real group you need to watch are the IT guys. As in many cases, (and as we frequently note in these KMWorld White Papers), IT is taking a larger role and gaining greater stature in the organization. On the social business side, for example, they have the power (and usually exert it) to block access to FaceBook, etc. So second-generation social business tools that allow access to sites outside the firewall while also maintaining security and control is a great way to keep users friendly while allowing IT to keep its grip on things. Given the proper level of governance, IT is easy to convince when you explain it that way.

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