Digital Conference 2010

Who Owns Social, Anyway?

Beats Me, but There Are a Ton of Things to Figure Out Before We Settle on the Answer

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
So who the heck owns social?

That's a tricky question, not only because every business stakeholder -- marketing, PR, IT, research, investor relations, media, consumer relations -- seems to have a piece of social baked into their new DNA and delivery road map, but also because its definition and scope keep getting pulled in new, arguably more complicated, directions.

Indeed, take a gander at all the new terms being used to describe our new world order -- social CRM, social commerce, earned media, CRM 2.0, enterprise social -- and you'll quickly find the social juggernaut becoming synonymous with that broader umbrella term known as "digital."

Indeed, I just dug up some notes from a consulting initiative I led at Nielsen for a major marketer. Digital, I noted, "is a new enabling framework for business and marketing grounded in four related characteristics: on-demand, interactive, sensing and connected."

Still, legitimate schizophrenia reigns around the ownership question. After all, as marketers we want leadership roles clearly defined (usually in our favor). We're restlessly -- and rhetorically -- impatient with silos and the "lack of organizational integration" -- even though our "what's next" appetite inevitably feeds the frenetic front line of fragmentation.

The good news is that social media appears to be softening organizational silos, ostensibly laying a runway for that coveted yet elusive marketing goal of "integration."

In my pre-call for the Ad Age Digital Conference panel I'm moderating -- featuring NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Dell CMO Erin Nelson and Combe VP-Director of Interactive Communications Tom Cunniff -- the vexing "integration" came up repeatedly. Much of this owes the furious pace of "social innovation," which Schiller reminded us is still in early innings. Put another way, we might need to turn over countless new rocks before we find our stride.

Nelson, who leads an impressive medley of activity from community platforms to service innovation, suggested that Dell's biggest need is "where to place bets." Digital and social media, she said, offers countless possibilities, but in the end you have to make choices. And boy, is she right. Combe's Cunniff concurrently hit the integration need hard but also suggested new centers of gravity would emerge in our socially enabled world, like consumer relations.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with "integration," calcified by 15 years of marketing experience, from "best practice"-heavy P&G to "start with a clean slate" web startups. Two conflicting rules reign supreme in my head: One, that which forces integration and coordination, or prematurely synthesizes, inevitably slows things down. Two, that which liberates, loosens, decentralizes and draws inspiration from external sources, or walks off the beaten path, speeds things up.

Alas, such is the dualism of social media. We want order, but we can't stand order. Jefferson-Hamilton reincarnated.

I mean, it's not that corporate stakeholder groups don't trust one another. It's just that the group typically holding the social flag most firmly thinks the other groups are too slow, have no business running the social-media show, and are putting the enterprise on the precipice of disaster through naïve embrace of social silliness like transparency and "be yourself" authenticity.

Meanwhile, agencies and supplier networks are all storming the "social media" center: PR firms see social as an extension of their birthright in influencer marketing; ad agencies see it as a new frontier of high-impact ad impressions (for example, earned media); the growing crop of word-of-mouth agencies and buzz-monitoring firms see this as birthright. It's almost as though we have the "internal" version of Bob Garfield's "Chaos Scenario."

Two recent developments really up the ante for both the ownership and integration questions: social HR and social CRM. For all our hype about the wonders of managing influencers and blogger outreach, the folks scoring the biggest wins in social outreach are the HR teams leading recruiting. Indeed, for those struggling with "social ROI" look no further than the fertile fields of open-source, "all content's a resume" web.

Then again, the HR dynamic can also muddle the marketing track, especially when the flow of a Facebook fan page quickly shifts gears from an on-equity brand message to a college recruiting pitch, or vice-versa.

The rise of "social CRM" further complicates the ownership question. Perhaps the IT or tech experts do have a legitimate claim to a space that's increasingly ornamented with enterprise software, cloud computing, scary-sophisticated databases, and scary-high consumer expectations (mostly set by the "marketing guy" freelancing "social engagement") regarding customer service. Social CRM is also introducing aspects of "business-process innovation" (cost-efficient crowd-sourcing, internal collaboration, integrated listening platform, and the like) that halos well above the marketing space.

So what's a CMO to do amid all this? We'll set some of these questions in tomorrow's panel, but in the meantime, don't naively assume you'll solve the social-media "ownership" and digital "integration" questions overnight. Your best bet right now is to manage the flow, sandbag unruly currents here and there, and do everything you can to "path the passion."

Moreover, we all need to become better internal curators and "community managers." Not unlike a devoted greenie, we need to work really hard to manage our social "ecosystem." This is probably less about command-and-control than in establishing thoughtful guide rails, tempered by experience, good judgment, and even the lessons of a few legal hard knocks.

We can also get a few things going that will cultivate more meaningful ownership or cooperation in the enterprise. In my experience, the leader who gets the best (and most inclusive) listening dashboard or radar in place quickly accrues the most organizational legitimacy. Listening pipes, after all, feed many mouths and can drive unity around a common purpose. (I see this all the time -- especially in crisis situations, where everyone has a stake in the outcome.)

Related, credible ownership also accrues to those who start making sense of the madness through smarter metrics. I'm particularly fond of the "paid/earned" model (even in my dialogue with in Nielsen) because it lowers access barriers to social media and speaks a language others in the organization can easily understand versus "shiny new object" gobbledygook.

Lastly, CMOs can make a world of difference rethinking incentive models. We have silos because we're all fighting for a limited budget, often at cross purposes.

So who owns social media? Beats me, but there are a ton of things we can figure out before we settle on the "silver bullet" answer.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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