Social Business: The New Black

A couple of weeks ago, a tweet by Beth Harte made me smile. She was citing Neville Hobson’s post “Is social business the new black?.” Sure, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also a welcome development.

Look back three years or more at the leading edge of what’s been loosely called “social media,” terminology that Harte, I, and countless others have talked about endlessly. The issue revolves around two competing views of the social Web: Is it a “channel” for marketing (in which case “social media” makes sense), or is it a shared space for learning and collaboration, in which case “social media” is a limited term.

These views have diverged since the social Web (i.e., Web 2.0) emerged in the early 2000s. Marketers have made a big push into social media, but it is by and large (yes, with some great standouts) a push toward using the social Web as a channel — specifically, an awareness platform.

Common applications include using Twitter to provide product and sale information (Dell), Facebook to create brand outposts (Coca-Cola and Pepsi), branded casual games (P&G), and more. These are all strong examples of the use of social media as an outreach or engagement channel, and they’ve produced solid results. We must keep doing this and improving these efforts.

But wait, there’s more.

The “New Black” is different. It doesn’t start in marketing, though it’s often championed there. Instead, it starts in operations.

At a fundamental level, the social Web empowers people to discuss experiences, share thoughts, and learn from each other. Now scope this down to business, and apply it to creating long-term sustainable growth. Take a page from Fred Reichheld’s “The Ultimate Question” and ask yourself: “How do I drive consistent 9s and 10s?”

The answer isn’t marketing in the awareness sense, although that’s an important part. The real answer is operations, the place within an organization (often along with product management) where goods and services are created and delivered.

Marketing sets the expectation, marketing creates demand, marketing helps a consumer differentiate why one choice is better than another choice. Operations delivers. Any gap between the two drives a conversation on the social Web.

Compared with social media on its own, social business — and more specifically social business strategy — steps further into the relationship between the business organization, the customer, and all of the other marketplace participants. On the marketing side, traditional advertising and PR are about “us reaching them.”

On the operations side, conventional customer-relationship management is about “us understanding what they liked or didn’t like.” In both of these, we use the data collected to improve messages, products, and relations with our customers.

Social business strategy connects customers with each other and simultaneously with the business. Social business strategy drives through the business to connect everyone in it back to its customers.

Harte made a great point during our ClickZ/Search Engine Strategies San Jose panel on “Social Media: White Hat vs. Black Hat” when she said it’s critically important that the “engineers write their own blogs.” This participative connection encourages essential collaboration between a business and its customers.

Sure, some portion of business communication can properly come from the PR team. At the same time, however, an increasing portion now must come from within the organization.

Without this linkage, customer collaboration drops, and a disconnect drives misbegotten products and services. The organization needs policies and a thought-through strategy for how it will participate, both internally and externally.

GM gets this. GM recently launched GM Labs as a continuing part of its social business program. Many more businesses should do this.

Still, GM Labs is a work in progress. As someone who is passionate about cars but works outside the auto industry (I have a pit in one of the bays of my garage at home), I’d love to see a checkbox on the Labs registration page that allows me to define myself as something other than “no ties to the auto industry.” The people GM really wants to have in GM Labs have a tie to the auto industry, but it’s an emotional tie that derives its value from personal passion. They need that checkbox, too.

Dell’s former Communities and Conversations VP Bob Pearson, now CEO of Social Media Business Council, was interviewed by Jeremiah Owyang (then at Forrester, now with Altimeter). In the interview, Pearson offered key insights into what enables a powerful social business strategy: building an organization capable of internalizing and responding to what it learns.

According to Pearson, “Step one is integrating social technologies. Prepare the organization for listening and responding, for working collaboratively with customers.”

He continued, “Step two takes the organizational measures further, reshaping the business infrastructure of a company to capitalize on the insights gained and innovations discovered through the collaborative process.”

Pearson’s leadership at Dell saw the launch of the Salesforce.com-based IdeaStorm platform, its Digital Nomad community, supported by Dell’s Chief Blogger Lionel Menchaca, and its entrepreneur-focused “Take Your Own Path.” These were supplemented with a comprehensive Dell Twitter program, with efforts like DellOutlet, headed by Stefanie Nelson (StefanieAtDell on Twitter). This is a nice blend of social media as outreach and social business as a strategic front within the organization.

Gaurav Mishra and I published a white paper, on social business strategy. David Armano with the Austin, Texas-based Dachis Group and Charlene Li’s Altimeter Group have published outstanding and fundamentally important work. Take some time and read up on these, and carry it down to your chief operating officer. It’s well worth your time.

What can you learn from these thought pieces? When you go about the task of building a social platform, don’t start with your brand. The top-down model of taking a brand to the marketplace, which remains very powerful in traditional media, is inverted when considered in the context of the social Web. While there are some brands (e.g., Apple), very few are big enough to solidly anchor a community.

Some automobiles (e.g., Toyota Prius), some technology products (e.g., Apple iPod), and some services (e.g., Southwest Airlines or JetBlue) might be able to build a community around their own brands, but these and a handful of others are the exceptions. Typically, it’s far smarter to build (or join) a community created around a lifestyle, passion, or cause.

Pepsi did this with “The Juice,” built around BlogHer and used to launch its low-cal Trop50 brand orange juice. The anchor isn’t the brand. The anchor is healthy families and mom’s role in making them happen.

Dig into social business and think about championing this kind of evolution within your organization. What would your business look like wearing the new black? No time like the present to find out.

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