Much of the site will be devoted to the concept of social business, and how I firmly believe that organisations will increasingly open themselves to the participation of groups and individuals previously kept at arm’s length. It’s important, therefore, that I try at least to offer up a level of definition…
So what is a social business (as opposed to a social enterprise)?
At a very simple level, I describe a social business as one that uses social technologies to involve its key stakeholders (primarily employees, customers, local communities and partners) in a broad range of organisational functions.
In a truly social business the lines between internal and external can become blurred, as well as between functional responsibilities: customers can get involved in product development; engineers can help with recruitment; partners in customer service.
One thing I would encourage you not to do, at least at this stage, is to get bogged down in technology. I’m a technology optimist (a technoptimist, perhaps?) in that I believe that anything we imagine that might be done with technology can be done with technology. You just need to work with the people that understand the different technologies. Social business is as more about culture, and the willingness of an organisation’s senior management and employees to adopt and adapt to social business (and as we all know, culture eats strategy for lunch).
Right now, when we talk about ‘social business’, to many people it means the use of social media in business and, principally, the use of social media in a company’s marketing and communications activity. And while a social approach to marketing can deliver huge benefits, anyone who has any experience of the area will know that social marketing cannot be undertaken in isolation from other parts of the organisation. For example, in opening up a social channel for dialogue with customers, marketers quickly realise that they need to establish functional links with the customer service team. Naïve is the company that believes every page post or ‘@’ reply will be from a happy customer…
But to those organisations that do establish these links effectively, they can see the efficiencies that a social approach can deliver across the business. So at a high level, how might a social approach to business be brought to bear across a business?
Marketing: As mentioned above, one of the areas where organisations – particularly consumer-facing businesses – have been experimenting with social media. The creation of content around brands (as opposed to just about brands, products and services) is a common strategy, and ensuring that content is easily found (including through online search) and shareable across a consumer’s social networks. Incentives and rewards delivered through social media (in many ways the ‘digitisation’ of sales promotion activities) is also a technique used to gather fans and followers in social media (more value, however, being delivered in how these communities are involved and engaged over the longer-term, which points to the links with some of the other business functions detailed below). A handy mantra for social content is: “Why would someone care, and why would they share?”
Public Relations: A traditional definition of PR – “Building mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its publics” – lends itself to the nature of social media in terms of an on-going dialogue. Publics in the broadest sense can mean any group, internal or external, that has an interest in the organisation, including customers, employees, shareholders, local communities, government, NGOs, partners, media etc. The use of social media can not only help in two-way communication and conversation, but through monitoring and social listening can help a business understand its stakeholders and their view much more effectively. In a less positive way, issues and crises affecting a business will almost certainly be played out and amplified through social media, so it is essential that early-warning monitoring in is place and the process defined for escalation and management.
Customer Service: As also mentioned above, when you open a channel through which you can communicate with customers but which, crucially, they can communicate with your businesses, it’s inevitable that dissatisfied and unhappy customers will air their grievances, along with those who simply have a specific question about products and services. When a social channel is established for any purpose, therefore, it is imperative that the appropriate connections are made to the customer service team to ensure that customers are responded to quickly and effectively. Further to these links, however, social technologies can actually create significant efficiencies in customer service operations and do so in a way that publicly enhances reputation.
Collaboration: Inside a company’s walls, social technologies can be deployed to aid collaborative working, the creation of ‘virtual’ teams for increased agility, sharing of information and best practice and internal communications. They can also be used to punch holes in traditional company boundaries to involve relevant partners, organisations and stakeholders in collaborative work.
Research and Development: The growth in social media means that the conversations that were previously held around the dinner table, in the office, at the pub or in the cafe are now also played out on the public web. The ability to listen in to those conversations – capturing verbatim, genuine insights into perceptions and motivations – in an incredible research tool we now have at our disposal, and which can lead to more relevant and useful products and services. In addition, loyal customers are motivated to help shape the future products and services from those brands to which they are connected emotionally, and through appropriate incentives and rewards can be effectively engaged in the R&D process.
Recruitment: In general, a more social business – one which empowers its people to deliver their own perspective on their workplace and which opens itself to greater external scrutiny – will find that it naturally attracts more motivated and relevant candidates. In essence, every current employee can become a recruiter for the business, tapping into their professional network to attract new employees, while the HR function can employ social technologies to communicate the opportunities and manage the recruitment process.
Sales: It may seem odd to have sales buried at the bottom of this list, given the importance it has on the ongoing viability of most businesses! But the fact is that many of the elements listed above which come together to form the social business can have a positive impact on sales. Much has been said of turning customers into advocates; people who will happily recommend your products and services to their friends, families and extended social networks. I think it’s stronger than advocacy: I believe that a firm recommendation from a friend is a clear sales call to action. If a trusted friend recommends me a book, I’ll buy it without question. Building closer ties through the use of social technologies can help turn your customers into your salesforce. And that can’t be a bad place to be, right?