Digital & Social Media

Graduating From Social Media to Social Business

Graduating From Social Media to Social Business

Charlene Li, the founder of the Altimeter Group, discusses with TRUE why companies must move beyond a strategy of simply being on social media to one that elevates social into an integral part of business. Li was coauthor of Groundswell in 2008, a book envisioning today’s dominance of social media. Her most recent book is Open Leadership.


TRUE: How well have companies embraced social as an integral element in their relationship with customers since Groundswell?

Li: Companies know they need to be on social. Nobody sees it anymore as a fad. But do they really get it? A large percentage doesn’t know what business value it gives to them — and if they don’t understand that, then they won’t be able to invest in it in a scalable way. Many have one or two people engaged out of 10,000 employees — in other words, they’re dabbling. It’s not something they’re taking seriously. They haven’t made the hard choices and investments that say this is something important to our business and important to our relationship with our customers.

OpenLeadership_Book_artworkOur research shows us that more than half (57 percent) are simply in social media mode. They have a presence, but it really is considered a marketing channel, totally marketing and communications oriented. They may have started to think about the potential impact on the bottom line, but they don’t have social business maturity. That’s what we’re looking for. The other 43 percent see its strategic value. They’re investing heavily in it.  They have formal programs and are moving rapidly into all parts of their business — customer service, innovation, product development and employee engagement, for example.

At the end of the day, about half of the companies — most with active social media programs, most with social media strategists who will quickly tell you they know they have to engage with their customers — don’t really know what they’re doing on social media. They just know they need to be there and can’t articulate why the company needs to take precious resources and executive time to scale that operation into social business. Social media for them is just an extension of PR.

TRUE: What has been the evolution in thinking in the C-suite about social? For most, is social still more about the risk of not being on rather than the opportunity it affords?

Li: That thinking is still very prevalent, no doubt. But we are now seeing more executives who are digital in their nature. They have been online for almost their entire careers. They use social on a regular basis to connect with people and with brands. They use it for decision-making. And they also understand the power of it. They’re part of the revolution that we’ve seen over the past five years with companies using this to connect with customers. Yet, many executives think it’s somebody else’s job to think about digital and social. It’s every single leader’s job to think in a digital mindset and be a digital leader. For some companies, social is becoming the digital strategy and that’s the direction they need to move in.

TRUE: What is the most common mistake that companies make with their social?

Li: The most common mistake is that companies treat social as a media channel and don’t look at it as engagement. If you look at the lists of what we define as the best social, they’re often based on media campaigns like what’s at the Super Bowl or on YouTube. I think we as an industry need to define better what best means. It should be about the ones that really try to have the best relationship because that in the end is what really matters. I’m not saying that those campaigns aren’t great. But look at the URLs associated with those campaigns from the Super Bowl. How many of them are dead ends now? How many of them actually led to a relationship? None of the ones from the Super Bowl took it any deeper than the 30-second relationship they had when the campaign aired. It’s fun and it’s interesting, but what’s the social aspect of it? It’s got to be something more than watching a video get shared.

TRUE: You’ve made the point in articles that companies are missing an opportunity to connect with employees via social and let employees be their ambassadors through social. Can you discuss this idea?

Li: Many people have this warped idea of what employee engagement looks like. It’s measured once a year in an employee survey. But it’s really a daily effort if you want to reduce the silos that naturally exist inside of organizations to get everyone aligned around the purpose of the organization. Social can be part of that, but it’s much more than just trying to insert employees into your marketing channel.

I go into so many companies, even big huge ones in the social business space. Their executives are asking me, “How come our employee social network isn’t taking off? Should we switch platforms?” I ask them a very simple question in response: “How many of you have posted on the social network in the past week? Raise your hand.” I get maybe one out of 10 people who raise their hand, and I go, “That’s your problem.”

One of my favorite examples of a company that understands the power of the employee is Telstra, an Australian telecomm company. They put in an enterprise social network, and everybody across the organization uses it because they know that the CEO reads it every single day, in fact continuously throughout the day. The CEO recently posted a note saying we’re interested in knowing about situations where our technology platform doesn’t work well together. What better way to figure out what’s broken then to ask the people who use it every day? He got something like 700 or 800 responses, and he had his team collate them, prioritize them and give them back to the organization to say, “thank you very much for your feedback.” Then he issued a priority list. So given all this feedback, this is what we’re going to be doing in order of importance. Not only did he ask for their opinion; he acknowledged that he heard every answer. It drives his managers kind of bonkers because nobody knows what he’s going to post, but it has produced amazing employee engagement.

Telstra also created a mobile phone app that employees can download and when they run into neighbors or friends or family who have a problem with their service they can log it right there and then. It goes into a priority queue, and the employee is notified about the status of that service inquiry. So imagine how that system changes the relationship with your employees. Your employees are now good will ambassadors for the company. When problems are fixed, they are the heroes that helped get the job done. This is the ultimate engagement, and for the customers they are being heard on the spot, not by a recording or anonymous person but by their neighbor. Compare this with the kind of customer satisfaction most telecomm companies experience.

TRUE: Why are companies hesitant to interact with employees in this way and give them the authority to represent the company?

Li: Companies like to say that employees are our biggest assets, but then they won’t trust them with anything.

Dell has been the poster child for trust and letting employees represent them online for the longest time. They have about 90,000 employees or so. They train them on how to use social media, and something like 15,000 or 20,000 of them are actually certified to go out there and post and respond to people on social. The company gets about 25,000 or 30,000 pings a day in social. With 20,000 employees responding, they actually have a fighting chance to reply to every single person. That’s scale.

But you see it in other places. Look at Whole Foods, the fact that every store has its own social media presence — Facebook page, Twitter page. At Applebee’s every single restaurant also has a Facebook page, and the assistant manager whose average age I think is in the mid-20s is the person who does all the community marketing. At that age, it’s unlikely that manager knows that much about the business; you’re giving them the trust to develop Applebee’s relationship with the community. So when you talk about scaling up a social operation, here are examples where it is penetrating into the farthest reaches of organizations.

To do this, employees need to be given the confidence that it won’t come back to haunt them. We give them a list of things that they should do and things they shouldn’t but in between is a tremendous amount of gray, and we’re asking them to exercise judgment. The fact of the matter is most of them do nothing today, even though they could because from their standpoint they are exercising good judgment. Basically they don’t do anything because they know that their job could be on the line. So when a company tells them go out there and post on social, the first reaction from the employee is, “No way I’m not going to risk my job. Let somebody else do it.”  You can see the conundrum. They can use it all day long for their personal lives but when it’s their employer on the line, they’re exercising pretty good judgment to avoid the risk.


About the author

Charlene Li is founder of Altimeter Group and coauthor of the critically acclaimed book Groundswell that anticipated the rise of social media. Her most recent book is Open Leadership. She is one of the foremost experts on social media and technologies and a consultant on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media, and marketing. She was named one of the 100 most creative business minds of 2010 by Fast Company. She spent almost a decade with Forrester Research as a principal analyst and in other roles.