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Social Media is Getting Serious. Finally.

For me, the last few weeks have marked the beginning of a major tipping point in business. We are in the process of transitioning from social media as a somewhat ‘gimmicky’ promotions engine, to social media being a deeply integrated and cross-functional discipline for leading businesses. Oracle and Salesforce.com have both placed some big bets on social media companies, which sets the stage for customer engagement to become more intimately linked with key internal functions.

This is an important period in the evolution towards social business, and here are some thoughts about what that means and how it is beneficial for businesses.

The Old Paradigm: Social Media Ads & Promotions

In so many ways social media has been adopted by companies as a ‘cheap alternative’ media channel for pushing promotions. Many businesses ran a flood of sweepstakes and promotions to acquire ‘likes’ and followers, which was seen as the end-goal. Facebook and other social platforms were seen as perfect vessels for these short marketing campaigns.

The problem that arises is who is ‘liking’ and following brands as a result of many prize-driven campaigns. In so many cases, the audience that is being acquired has very limited relevance to the brand in the long run. They are not customers, have little interest in a long-term relationship with a brand, but the idea of winning something drives some short-term bond.

The New Paradigm: Social CRM

As social media evolves it is becoming more deeply integrated into core functions of the enterprise. It is not about solely running short campaigns (although this will continue to be a small subset of activities). The future of social media will drive truly core aspects of business including:
  • Business intelligence & consumer insights
  • More open innovation processes
  • User-generated content, driving share of conversation
  • Loyalty programs that span purchasing, engagement, and advocacy

The true benefit of social media is that it is real-time, interactive, and scalable. In the past, consumer insights work included massive research studies and focus groups at a cost of hundreds of thousand or millions of dollars. But the cost is not really the issue. The issue is that they take months to get any type of output. As a result, a million dollar research study often ends its life as a 300-page slide deck in a binder in someone’s office, collecting dust.

The need for business intelligence and innovation is becoming very time sensitive, and the leading edge of social media is creating systems to listen, capture, and interpret what customers are saying—and then actually engage customers in pro-active, collaborative forums that yield rich insights and ideas.

Additionaly, social media is changing the way brands are built and cultivated. Customers are creating stories at a faster pace than the brands themselves. This explosion of user-generated content can dilute a brand’s message. The next iteration of social media will help businesses inspire, collect, curate, and promote stories and UGC. If companies begin to leverage social media as a more sustainable form of customer engagement, they can enrich their content by pairing it with authentic stories generated by customers.

The Social Enterprise

We are in the process of redefining the boundaries of businesses. Where once a company was defined by its employees and partners; today, the lines between internal and external (ie. customers) is blurring. Innovative brands are inviting their customers to be true partners. This is not a gimmick to make customers feel valued. The businesses that scale their customer engagement are gathering intelligence, ideas, and building advocacy at a pace we could not imagine ten years ago. The complete social enterprise will not see market research, innovation, product launches, and promotions as silos strung together in a linear process. These elements will be tightly linked and all part of an iterative process whereby customers are involved in providing insights, stories, and ideas that build ownership in a brand. This content can be the foundation for innovation, but also authentic stories pushed out and shared through social networks.

Look at Threadless for example. They involve a crowd in designing and voting on T-shirt designs (and now much more). The process of creating new products is the promotion and customer loyalty building—it is not happening in a vacuum behind closed doors. Then as the shirts go on sale, there is already a primed and invested network of advocates to purchase and share the new item.

The next stage

I believe a big part of this evolution makes sense when you look at social media through the eyes of a social media ‘maslow’s hierarchy’. Every company needs to progress through the various layers, and their goals and tactics have to change and adapt over time.

More and more companies have built large audiences, and now the true challenge is engaging them, building loyalty, and driving real business ROI in the form of business intelligence, consumer insights, product innovation, and ultimately revenue.

What’s so unbelievably exciting is that this ‘community’ stage at the top of the hierarchy provides valuable business intelligence and innovation to businesses, but also aligns with the customer’s desire to be involved, to be creative, and to make an impact. It is the one place where the needs of a brand and the desires of customers are in complete alignment.

Cover image and top image from Shutterstock

This is a cross-post from Napkin Labs blog.

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