Has the Social-Business Vision "Failed"?
It is a confronting accusation posed in a powerful Medium Post over the weekend by Addvocate Founder and CEO Marcus (@marcusnelson) Nelson - The Next Social Imperative: "Failed promise. Failed mission. #Fail.". It is one I felt I had to respond to as it does go right to the heart of what is wrong with the way Social Business has been embraced. I worked with Marcus in the PR team at Salesforce.com in 2011-12 just as Marc Benioff's vision of the "Social Enterprise" was being unveiled and I joined in when he - as he wrote in his post - "cheered as social media became integral to enterprise marketing". It was an exciting time when the essence of the Social promise - as foreseen in The Cluetrain Manifesto - began to come to fruition. That promise is neatly summarised in The Next Social Imperative as:
"Social media’s true utility— its fundamental reason for existence—is for building genuine connections."
Sadly, I also agree with Marcus that two years on, all that has happened is that "the social-business industry has pushed crass commercialism to new levels". Today, so much Social commentary - and I am often as guilty as everyone else - is focussed on the Content Marketing and SEO aspects of Social and almost nothing is invested in helping companies ENGAGE their customers online. Not just Likes and Retweets, but actual conversations.
Not nearly enough is being done to open up the channel to genuine discussion and connection. Instead the effort to automate and outsource as much as possible sucks every last ounce of authenticity out of the interaction. (In this sense, the Social channel is going the way of the telephone channel before it - automated, outsourced and ultimately a betrayal of its promise.) The most successful efforts of the Social Industry have been in providing expensive software suites from which to automate monitoring and the dissemination of digital marketing messages optimized for every channel and - also as Marcus says - "aimed at getting customers to LIKE us, LOVE us and, above all, BUY from us." But not to TALK to us.
Of course - speaking as an experienced PR professional - it should be remembered that Corporate Communications and legal people alike FREAK OUT at the thought of hundreds or thousands of employees chatting with prospects, customers and partners "willy nilly". The management challenges and risks are so frightening that the most conservative option is to prevent this kind of discourse happening at all - or certainly not to encourage it. The spectre of employees getting sucked into troll battles, or providing the wrong assistance to customers circumventing the support queue, or insulting customers-to-be with inappropriate comments out of hours are all nightmare scenarios amplified in their apparent likelihood by media scare stories. This is where the real failure is: a failure of courage, imagination and vision - in allowing fear to inhibit progress. All of these scenarios can be managed.
Working with Marcus at Salesforce.com I learned a lot about how Social employee interactions can be managed very easily and effectively; but another company I have already written about here who is a stand-out example in this area is Dell. During a chat with one of their Social champions, Richard (@ByJove) Margetic, earlier this year I learned that while various Dell corporate channels such as @dellcares have millions of followers, it was Dell employees that were responsible for most of Dell's Social-generated inbound traffic to the website. Basically, recommendations and comments from genuine rank-and-file employees were far more influential in driving inbound web traffic than the well-managed but ultimately very faceless Corporate Social accounts. This is what Marcus means when he says:
"Consumers trust a company’s rank and file workers—especially people with technical expertise—more than they trust top executives."
But Dell weren't haphazard in enabling and unleashing this power, it was measured and deliberate. Those interested in becoming a Social Media Ambassador for the company were carefully trained not only in Social skills but also in the company message and in engagement protocols. They added "atDell" to their Twitter accounts, standardised their Profiles and became accountable for what they shared. Other aspects of getting this right include having a clear and well communicated Social Media Policy (which I talk about in more length here).
Also, in helping employees better understand what content they can share on behalf of the company (and in tracking and rewarding that), Marcus' own technology - Addvocate - has to be the leader in this field.
Finally, clear procedures in the event of certain predictable situations (ideally established through a Issues-and-crisis document) should be well communicated across the company. For instance, in the event that Salesforce.com has a "service disruption" (a euphemism for an "outage") guidance on what employees should and shouldn't say on Social Media to complaining customers - and resources that they could point users to - was very transparently available to those that needed them.
So I do second Marcus' rallying call:
"Isn’t it time we reclaimed social media’s true mission of building genuine connections?"
But with a caveat: that such an environment - while very powerful - is a huge management and risk challenge. But this challenge should not be beyond those responsible for it - mainly PR, legal and senior management; and certainly the difficulty of it should no longer hold back progress in creating a business world more about genuine connections between companies and customers and less about cost-effective and efficient digital marketing.