Aug 16, 2010

Moving from Social Media Marketing to building a Social Business

As more and more Indians are accessing the internet and as broadband speeds are picking up, some savvy marketers are looking more and more at the fast growing social networks like Facebook, Orkut and Twitter to become additional channels to communicate their messages and market to their demographic.

Organizations in India that have tested the social media waters include firms like lifestyle marketer Fastrack to Non-Profit firms like Pratham Books to technology companies like Dell and Microsoft to banking companies like HDFC Bank and ICICI Bank and telecom firms Airtel, Vodafone and Aircel to dotcoms like, to auto firm Mitsubishi. Media firms in India from Hindustan Times, NDTV, Network 18 , Outlook Group and Open Media are also embracing "social" in varying degrees.

The examples of these companies are spurring many other firms to set up Facebook pages, Orkut communities and Twitter accounts. Many marketers do not really know how to do everything – and neither do their traditional agencies, so a niche group of service providers have come up which encompass the technology skill and the business knowledge to try and provide the help.

Typically the phrase "social media marketing" has gained circulation over the last two years so much that many organizations believe that it is purely a marketing channel and the rest of the organization does not need to involve itself with the same.

That is the short term view.

Social technologies that enable social media – is a fundamentally different form of communication than broadcast media (like telephone, direct mail, television, print and radio) which companies are familiar with.

Traditional organizational communication is opaque. When you connect with a business over letter or telephone – the transaction is not viewable by other customers.

Traditional broadcast communication is one-way and one-to-many. A company broadcasts an advertisement or news and people consume it. Until social media came along people couldn't share what they thought of those advertisements.

What does social media do?

The beginnings of social media were in the bulletin boards of the early nineties. People would ask questions – and other people would answer them. The conversation was threaded and could be about whatever. If you had a bulletin board on a site dedicated to rock music – it would be about rock music. If it was on a tech site the questions and answers would be about technology.

In these bulletin boards more often than not – people's reputations were made. If you answer many questions which are deemed useful by other users - one could get recognized as an expert. These were the precursor to today's Yahoo Answers, Linkedin Q&A and Quora (and a rumored Facebook Answers too)

After the bulletin boards came blogs – which gave anyone a platform to publish his or her views or commentary or stories to a worldwide audience. If a person was passionate about a certain subject – he or she could build a dedicated readership.

Then came social networks – the ones like Facebook, Linkedin and Orkut have rich user profiles, community pages, activity streams and third party applications running on them. Relationships are mutual between users. Twitter is a little different social network than these. Relations are not mutual. I can choose to follow Priyanka Chopra but she doesn't have to follow me back. Which is why it's become a big favorite of celebrities and media outlets. Twitter also limits posts to 140 characters.

The big change between earlier media and "social media" or "participatory media" or Web 2.0 or whatever one chooses to call it is the fact – that people who participate in these have moved from being passive consumers of information and entertainment to creators. Every person can theoretically publish his own newspaper editorial (aka blogs) or his own TV channel (on Youtube).

Most organizations don't get this. They believe Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin are additional channels to TV, Radio and print. They then are surprised when consumers react and respond. It's a great high when the reaction is positive – and despair when they react negatively.

The big issue is that when a business opens an account on these networks – it is one part of the organization doing so – usually the marketing department along with its agency. However for the people on these networks – this is the one face of the organization , and they bring all their communication to it – from product and customer service issues to job seeking queries to business partnership questions. When the person managing the account takes time to respond or can't respond the organization gets slammed on the network.

Organizations that are venturing into social media – need to first look at objectives and metrics and then put in a cross functional team that believes in transparent and open communication. It also has to set process and workflows that add on to traditional operations and customer service workflows so that external issues are absorbed internally and resolved and then communicated externally.

Having just one gate between the organization and its customers results in social media bottleneck – and that approach does not scale for larger companies in the long run.

Hence the social business enables a large part of the employees to interact with customers – and encourages customers to connect with other customers. A large technology firm in the US found that it could reduce support costs if it put in a bulletin board where experienced users helped newer users.

At its epitome the social business involves the customer in its innovation process – either by using the collective wisdom of the community or by an ideation system where users give ideas for the product or service.