Marketing expert Deborah Overdeput suggests three main reasons why social media is important to business. She says it allows a company to build a community and engage in two-way dialogue with customers, the media, partners and other key external stakeholders, and internally with employees. It allows for collaboration through what social mediaistas call "crowdsourcing," to enhance products, gain insights, and improve customer service. And, it enables a company to reach a broader market with fewer dollars.
It's a sure bet that some businesses are better suited to the use of social media than others. I believe that social media is relevant, to some degree, to all business and it's a matter of fit whether it will drive or merely support your company's delivery of messages and interaction with markets. What you don't want to have happen is to be firmly in the doubting camp when the social marketing success is achieved, transforming you instantly from a challenger to a Luddite.
"One thing to watch for is small victories in the use of social media to cut through the layers of your business."
One thing to watch for is small victories in the use of social media to cut through the layers of your business. Consultants like to talk about crossing or cutting across and through silos. Some call it "disintermediation." They mean taking out intermediate steps, processes, systems and people no longer needed to get to an end point. It may be a long time, or it may be tomorrow, but social media's success at this is likely to occur in your business and you don't want to be the last to know.
In a much simpler time (1980's), I witnessed a sea-change from the first top-down use of e-mail inside DuPont. Before PCs were ubiquitous, the head of a small division within the Textile Fibers department embraced e-mail via CRTs attached to minicomputers as a method to ask questions directly of people down the management chain. He quickly established direct flows of information with experts on plant floors or in engineering labs who were elated to talk directly to the boss about production issues and opportunities. He was able to ask his direct reports what they were going to do about things that they often did not yet know were going on. He drove the division to cut nine management layers to four and to greatly speed up decision-to-action cycles. His division became leaner and faster and more successful, he was promoted to head the department, the entire department transformed, and those who insisted on the traditional flow of reports from manager to manager to manager lost roles and influence.
In a recent McKinsey interview, Andrew McAfee of the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School was asked how business will make progress in the use of social media. McAfee "[finds himself] agreeing more with the top-down crowd, though. We know how important it is for management to create culture and to signal what's valued inside the organization."
I agree. There must be activity on both ends but the sea change is imminent when someone, from a top-down perspective, starts his or her "disintermediation" between themselves and market awareness and interest.
If you are a skeptic about your company's use of social media, don't criticize the faddishness or the geekiness of the technology. Whether you're the decision maker or a participant/observer in management, do challenge the social media efforts to create a new flow of information, findings, hypothesis and decision making within the company. In the same manner, challenge the efforts to create interactions about markets and within markets, especially interactions external to the company and about needs and opportunities that you should address (versus, perhaps, the ones you are addressing).
Because social media flows inside and outside the company, you may need to look less for reduction layers (as in the 1980's) and more toward creating a 360 perspective on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As McAfee says, you can lay the tools out there but you must participate. In social media, it is not enough for the company president or head of marketing to have a blog -- her blog has to allow for comments and feedback. It must be a successful vehicle for company participation in conversations, internal or external, without going through 20th Century layers of managers and processes.