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Take heed of a developing digital divide

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Builders of the early Web often fretted about the risk of a “digital divide” between people who had access to technology and those who didn't. The emerging Web 2.0 world is witnessing a digital divide of its own, only the distinction is being drawn along cultural rather than economic lines. New research from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. suggests that companies that are finding success with social media are discovering that it transforms the way they operate. The survey of nearly 1,500 executives found that these organizations are using internal and external conversations to reshape supply lines, collaborate on product development and find new marketing and sales channels. In fact, only 8% of the satisfied organizations said social media has not changed their business (full results are available at www.mckinseyquarterly.com). A divide is evident, however, in the response from businesses that report dissatisfaction with Web 2.0. They overwhelmingly cite management resistance, vague ROI and internal culture as the biggest obstacles to success. These companies are also the most likely to flatline or reduce their investment in the tools in the immediate future. These skeptics are at risk of falling further behind their competitors as Web 2.0 makes its inexorable march into the corporation. There can be little doubt that social media is going mainstream. Former Forrester researcher Peter Kim has assembled a list of more than 300 corporations that are active in various public forums (find it at www.beingpeterkim.com). His list is a veritable who's who of leading brands. An unscientific survey by content marketing firm Junta42 found that 56% of respondents plan to increase spending on Web 2.0 initiatives in 2009, while only 13% are cutting back. Brands like Procter & Gamble, Dell Computer and Starbucks are now actively involving customers in product development. Even businesses that have been beaten up for fumbling their early efforts—including Sony Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores—have come back for another try. Social media marketing turned the corner in 2008, and its momentum now looks unstoppable. Success with these new technologies demands corporate governance that values customer insight and constant conversation. Businesses today have more options than ever before to build continuous feedback into everything they do. The option of remaining aloof and distant is increasingly implausible. Yet a minority of businesses still persists in discouraging their people from engaging with customers or even with each other. In these companies, information is something to be protected and negativity, to be denied. The trouble is that customers no longer need prompting to speak their minds; they'll do it anyway. A new digital divide is emerging, and businesses that can't buy into the culture of inclusion are increasingly at risk of becoming irrelevant. Don't let that happen to you. M
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