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Report sees lack of social media-business alignment

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Six months ago, your company charged into social media with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, eager to cash in on the bounty of word-of-mouth goodness that happens when employees and customers sing your praises. But things haven't turned out as planned. Facebook “likes” plateaued early, and your head of sales is griping that the few leads that come in from social channels are lousy. What's worse is that customers mainly use Facebook and Twitter to complain, and your customer service organization is in constant fire-drill mode as a result. Sound familiar? This scenario is all too common for companies that fail to link social media activity to a business strategy. And these days that's most of them, according to Altimeter Group research being released today. The report, “The Evolution of Social Business: Six Stages of Social Media Transformation,” surveyed online about 700 social strategists and executives in November and December, and went in-depth with 26 of them by phone. It found:
  • Only 12% said they're confident that their company has a social media plan that looks beyond the next year.
  • Only half said their top executives are “informed, engaged and aligned” with social strategy.
  • Only one in three felt that metrics used to measure the results of social activities are connected to business outcomes. (Much more common was a focus on follower counts, a metric that has become all but meaningless in a world in which 100,000 Twitter followers can be purchased for $300.)
The findings indicated “a great misunderstanding of social media and the opportunity it presents,” said Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter and a co-author of the research. The report found that many companies dive into social media with a bottom-up approach that ignores business strategy. On the plus side, executives were reasonably aware of the risk and compliance issues involved in engaging in public channels. Roles and responsibilities of those charged with speaking for the company were also generally well-defined. However, the report determined that less than half of socially active companies are perceived by employees to have a long-term vision for customer impact, and almost three in four have not trained employees on how to use social media to benefit the organization. Institutions such as IBM Corp. or McKinsey & Co. have promoted social business as a goal. McKinsey last year estimated that “using social technologies to improve collaboration and communication within and across companies could raise the productivity of interaction workers by 20% to 25%.” One particularly interesting finding was that “centers of excellence,” while widely adopted, may ultimately frustrate a company's ambitions to become a “social business.” Altimeter defined social business as integrating “social media and social methodologies into the organization to drive business impact.” While centers of excellence sound good, they often become little more than help-desk operations, the report found. Without a firm grounding in business strategy, these expertise hubs may promote haphazard use of social channels and ultimately frustrate their potential. “The risk is that centers of excellence focus on getting people talking rather than on what they should say,” Solis said. Only 28% of survey respondents said their company has a coordinated approach to social media across multiple lines of business. The Altimeter research confirms much of what I've seen in my own interactions with b-to-b companies. They charge into social networks because they think it's the thing to do rather than because they see a business benefit. While there's nothing wrong with experimentation, management needs to understand that these experiments are public and precedent-setting. Too often executives pass social media responsibility off to junior staffers—usually within the marketing department—and then wash their hands of the problem. While Altimeter's finding that only half of executives are aligned with their companies' social media strategies may be seen as a glass-half-full scenario, I see it as troubling. When a company chooses to initiate an ongoing dialogue with the public, executives had better know what they're getting into. In a recent crisis involving layoffs at the British music chain HMV, one employee tweet quoted the company's marketing director as wondering, cluelessly, “How do I shut down Twitter?” That service has been around for seven years. Companies that are in the advanced stages of social media- adoption are well past the attitude that Facebook and Twitter are novelties. Not only are they embedding these tools into everything from customer service to HR, they're also deploying them behind a firewall to unlock employee knowledge. Much of the Altimeter report is devoted to defining a six-stage model of social business evolution, and that framework is its greatest value. The news, though, is that a headlong charge into social media without a business strategy is not only unproductive but potentially damaging. Think of that before appointing that recent college grad to be your public voice. The Altimeter report is available online here. Paul Gillin (gillin.com) is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB. He can be reached at paul@gillin.com.
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